BOOK REVIEW: Hotel Scarface by Roben Farzad

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but with Hotel Scarface you don’t really get a choice – bullets, palm trees and a hazy pink background all seem to scream ‘trashy’ pulp. And if you were in any doubt, the strapline ‘Where cocaine cowboys partied and plotted to rule Miami’ puts you straight. It is a bit of a shame, as the history of Miami is an interesting one and the author is clearly passionate about it, but the cover and strap line seem to have been designed to stand out and grab attention.

The action mainly concentrates on the 70s and 80s and centres around the hotel/nightclub ‘The Mutiny at Sailboat Bay’, which was the fulcrum of the cocaine and organised crime invasion that came to define the city. The place was frequented by all the main players – gangsters, bent cops, celebrities and hookers. The book is clearly pitched at the kind of readers who are likely to be huge fans of the film Scarface, hence the reference to it in the title, and is sold as what promises to be a white-knuckle ride (and the narrator expects you to be impressed):

“Ted Kennedy, fresh off conceding the Democratic presidential nomination, has often been deep in his cups at the mutiny, where he hated bumping into Jimmy Carter Wingman Hamilton Jordan, who was constantly in Miami to negotiate the asylum in Panama for the deposed Shah of Iran. Kennedy picked a fight with the club’s DJ, who was helping Julio Iglesias, a Mutiny resident, hype his latest record. You catch all that?”

It’s a crime story as old as the hills – people find themselves in the right place at the right time to exploit a scenario, life is great, they party, money and drugs fly around, but then it all unravels – things get out of control, loyalty and friendships go out of the window, people end up in jail or dead. The end.

In order for this to work you really need to drawn into the world of the Mutiny, but it’s not always an easy sell. It’s a true story, but the debauchery – mountains of coke, bathtubs full of Dom Perignon, disco, bling, hookers – all just seems to be a bit clichéd and repetitive, and not particularly shocking. Likewise the characters – you need to care about them and their stories but they never really come alive on the page. Beyond the drugs and massive amounts of money the main players – Burton Goldberg, Willie Falcon, Sal Magluta – just aren’t charismatic enough, although they almost certainly were in real life.

Roben Farzad has clearly done his homework – a fact underlined by the vast number of people he interviewed for research (all listed at the back of the book). However, this is part of the problem – there’s almost too much information to soak in. The story at times feels like a conveyor belt of identikit characters, all with a similar story and part in the scene – and it’s hard to keep up sometimes.

However, it’s an entertaining book to read – and it has a wide network of intrigue. Bay of Pigs veterans, Cuban immigrants, corrupt law enforcement officers, mercenaries, bent lawyers, Hollywood stars, Noriega, Escobar, smugglers and assassins all rubbing shoulders as the huge amount of drugs and violence coming in from Central and South America redefines the city. The narrator – from Miami – is an enthusiastic guide and there’s some good factual stuff in there.

Ultimately Hotel Scarface is a fairly decent page-turner but you need to buy into a lifestyle and scene that in this day and age seems a bit dated and no longer able to shock. I am sure Hotel Scarface will find its niche; what with the success of various successful shows regarding narcotics, and violence such as Narcos, Sons of Anarchy, The Wire and Breaking Bad to name a few.

So will you be checking into Hotel Scarface? 

Roben Farzad

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Roben Farzad has reported everywhere from Mozambique and Botswana to the West Bank and the slums of Medellín, Colombia, to the Dominican Republic and the warn-torn Niger Delta.

He spent nine years as a senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, where he covered Wall Street, international finance, Latin America and Miami. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globeand Miami Herald, and is a regular on MSNBC, CNN, NPR, C-SPAN and the PBS NewsHour.

Farzad is a graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs and the Harvard Business School, and has lectured students and at NYU, CUNY and Columbia. Born in Iran, he was raised in Miami and now lives in Virginia with his wife and their two kids, who also enjoy reruns of Miami Vice.

Hotel Scarface is available from Bantam Press an imprint of Penguin Random House here.

Bantam

Reviewed by Delme Jones

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