Lewis Shiner's Dark Tangos seems, at the outset, to suffer from an ill-defined protagonist. Soft-boiled sad sack Robert Cavenaugh, an American computer programmer recently relocated from the Research Triangle to Buenos Aires after his wife leaves him, is so mild-mannered as to be almost nonexistent.
There is not much to chew on in the initial descriptions of the book's other characters either, from the stilted comic relief supplied by Indian co-worker Bahadur Singh's love of American slang, to Cavenaugh's son Sam, a teenager right out of central casting who is in a band and calls his father "D" (for Dad) during their Skype sessions.
But Shiner's prose and plotting pick up as he describes Buenos Aires and the politics that are unfolding as Cavenaugh settles into his new life. The author, a Durham resident, describes the city's complex mix of old and new, and the unique Euro-Latin culture without resorting to the gee-whiz tropes that can plague such endeavors. As Cavenaugh travels through the city, usually in search of another gathering at which to polish his burgeoning tango skills, he learns more about the demonstrations clogging the streets.
The protesters, and many of the Argentines Cavenaugh comes to know, are calling for justice in the ongoing trials of former government officials accused of human rights abuses during the country's military dictatorship, when tens of thousands of Argentines disappeared and many more were tortured and released by the regime. After Cavenaugh befriends and falls for a woman who is intimately caught up in the unfolding drama of the trials, Shiner begins to paint a clearer and more interesting picture of the man.
Cavenaugh chases, and wins, his love interest on the dance floor. Handled poorly, this could make for some cringe-worthy reading, but Shiner is restrained in his writing about the tango, focusing on the elaborate rituals surrounding the dance. Cavenaugh's attempts to navigate this new world show that he has a bit of bravery, and his relentless pursuit of the woman and of the next dance show a desperation that wasn't evident initially.
As Cavenaugh starts to realize that the social and political unrest surrounding the trials of former government torturers may be drawing closer to him and those he loves, everything about the book's characters, plotting and pacing gets sharper. And then it gets weird.
Without spoiling any of the book's plot twists, it's fair to say that the penultimate section goes in an unexpected direction. In a Raymond Chandler novel, this would be where Marlowe gets coldcocked or drugged and left on a motel room floor. Dark Tangos seems to be moving in that direction and then veers into a brutal exploration of the methods and effects of torture. It is a frank and direct look at the horrific underpinnings of the Argentinian people's complaint against their former government, and Shiner's precise and unmannered description, much like his description of the tango, is more illuminating than more stylized prose.
Like Marlowe, Cavenaugh is enlightened by the violence, and he sets about making use of his revelations. The book's tone has changed by the end, not to rote tough-guy stuff, but to something suitably grim and determined, and it is a pleasure to follow the final twists along the way.