Bitter Drink by FG Haghenbeck, translated from the Spanish by Tanya Huntingdon.
Whenever I read some noir, I know I should read lots more, for I love it, but I get distracted onto other things – I think it’s a dead cert that’ll happen this time too. Meanwhile, although this slim novel is no masterpiece, I did enjoy it for its little dose of Hollywood glamour.
The tale is set around the filming of the 1964 film The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, and starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr with Sue Lyon. Tennesse Williams’ play tells the story of a defrocked Episcopal priest scraping the bottom of the barrel as a tour guide to a coachload of Baptist women in Mexico.
The filming took place in Mismaloya, Mexico and put the town of Puerto Vallarta on the map. It was notorious for two things in particular: firstly, the still-married Burton, fresh off the set of Cleopatra, brought the still-married Liz Taylor with him on location; and secondly, the fact that John Huston had gold plated revolvers made for the acting leads, each with silver bullets engraved with their colleagues’ names.
So much for reality. Haghenbeck takes the already colourful facts, and weaves a story around them centred on a Beatnik detective Sunny Pascal, a Mexican working in Hollywood, who is hired to be in charge of security on set and keeping the cast out of trouble too. The set, its cast and crew, are awash with booze, and the town is full of tension so when someone ends up with one of those silver bullets in them, it’s not a surprise. Things will only get worse once the Mexican Mafia turn up.
Sunny doesn’t seem to be much of a security guy – he seems to spend most of his time getting beaten up – he successfully deflects the worst attention from the shenanigans of the film’s stars though. How much is luck and how much is judgement isn’t always clear, but he does know how to make things go away. Nearly everyone seems to like Sunny, and when not getting beaten up, he’s usually to be found propping up the bar on the set knocking back a few cocktails, which brings me to a major feature of this book…
Cocktails! Each of the 26 short chapters is titled after one, which will make an appearance in the main story later. Preceding that is the recipe and a potted history of each cocktail’s development, so that’s 26 pages out of 147 in total devoted to cocktails. This made the story rather slight, and I doubt I’d have read this book if it hadn’t been about the film and its stars – indeed I’d love to see the film now.
The author is a fan of Chandler, and a lot of Sunny’s dialogue echoes that of Philip Marlowe – sometimes cheesy (but with tongue in cheek) – of course I don’t know how much of the cheesiness is in the translation. It was fun though (6.5/10).
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I received a review copy of this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Bitter Drink by FG Haghenbeck, pub 2012 by Amazon Crossing, 147 pages.
Night of the Iguana  [DVD]