The Guardian, Saturday 8 August 2009
To do this she must make herself invisible. And Fairview, an upscale ski resort favoured by Hollywood types, is the easiest place in the world for brown-skinned people to pass unnoticed. Illegals are run by Esteban, a spineless pimp; Mercado's duties as a maid include hiding drugs, which Esteban supplies, in celebrities' bathroom cabinets and being sexually available at all times.
On the list of suspects her journalist brother has drawn up for her are an up-and-coming actor, Jack Tyrone, and his manager, Paul. Though dim and narcissistic, Jack has an open, ingenuous quality which attracts Mercado, and it's thanks to him that she - and we - get to hear some hilariously bitchy, self-serving film chat, much of it centred around Tom Cruise, whose huge house looms at the top of the hill - at once a goal and a rebuke. These scenes generate a frisson of verisimilitude as Cruise does indeed spend much of the year in Telluride, the Colorado resort on which Fairview is clearly based.
Mercado's soft spot for himbo actors belies her cop's acumen and awesome defensive skills. En route from Mexico, the Land Rover transporting her and her fellow wetbacks to their new life in "the land of Frank Sinatra, Jennifer Lopez, Jorge Bush" is held up by a couple of chancers. When one of them tries to rape her, Mercado shows us exactly what she learnt in her PNR training in a fight scene of fist-chewing gruesomeness: "I was covered in blood and brains and bits of skull."
McKinty keeps the fish-out-of-water satire to a minimum. It's enough for Mercado to be beguiled in Starbuck's by the scent of vanilla, then floored by the realisation that her espresso costs more than the average daily wage in Havana. Besides, Fifty Grand is as much about Cuba as it is about America - a country "on Deathwatch, waiting out the Beard and his brother's final days" (ie Castro) ; frantically trying to appease a freshly Democrat America. "Now," Mercado observes drolly, "we were supposed to gather evidence and arrest people in the modern manner."
The mystery of Mercado's father's death is resolved easily - perhaps too easily. But it doesn't matter. What matters is Mercado herself, the one-time winner (she tells us proudly) of the Dr Ernesto Guevara Young Poets' prize. It's a pleasure to be around someone so sharp and resourceful, noticing what she notices and feeling what she feels.