Professor Clifford E. Landers’s July 10th post for this site left me wanting to know more about Brazilian crime fiction; he covers additional aspects of the subject here, with examples of how several different subgenres of the mystery have developed in South America’s largest country. . . . —Janet Hutchings
In a previous blog I talked in general terms about the rich mother lode of crime fiction coming out of Brazil. Today I deal with some of the motifs found in the Brazilian policial, as crime fiction is known, and point out a few works that exemplify the genre. (Unless otherwise noted, the titles mentioned are available in English.)
Despite the name, the policial is not restricted to the role of the police in solving (or not) a crime. And while the police procedural is part of the genre, it is less prevalent than in its American counterpart. One acclaimed example is the forthcoming novel Crimes of August by the venerable Rubem Fonseca, to appear in 2014 from Tagus Press. (Full disclosure: I am its translator.) Here the protagonist is police inspector Alberto Mattos, who becomes obsessed with solving a brutal murder in the highest echelons of Rio society. In the process of investigating the possible involvement of powerful political figures, he himself becomes the target of assassination attempts.
It’s pure speculation on my part, but one reason the police procedural is less common in Brazil may be the widespread belief that most cops, who are normally recruited from the lower socioeconomic brackets and are poorly paid, are little better than bandidos themselves. Shakedowns, graft, payoffs from the “bankers” of the illegal but ubiquitous “animal game” lottery–all contribute to the popular sentiment that police are unreliable at best and quasi-criminal at worst. Hardly the stuff from which literary heroes are made.
However, not all police are venal and corrupt, as Fonseca’s Mattos demonstrates. Another good-guy cop is Chief Inspector Espinosa, who operates out of Copacabana’s 12th Precinct in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s novels (now numbering seven), translated by the scholar Benjamin Moser. Alone in the Crowd, the latest entry, is typical of the series.
The ultimate insider’s view of crime in Brazil is perhaps that of Captain Roberto Nascimento in the novel Elite Squad, made into the movie that won the 2008 Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The fact-based work is by Luiz Eduardo Soares (an anthropologist and political scientist), and André Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel (two former BOPE members). BOPE was the special division of the military police charged with ridding the favelas (hillside shantytowns) of entrenched drug gangs. Its methods were violent, sometimes crossing the line between law enforcement and vigilantism. Nascimento is portrayed as a basically decent but flawed individual whose capacity for empathy and mercy has been strained to the breaking point by the carnage he witnesses almost daily in the favelas.
Far more common in Brazil than the literary hero cop is the private investigator. Private detectives have been a staple in crime fiction since at least the time of Arthur Conan Doyle. In America, the 1930s marked the heyday of the so-called hardboiled detective school, with writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Significantly, it is this period that has had the greatest influence on Brazilian crime writers.
One example is Tony Bellotto, guitarist for the hugely popular rock band The Titans, who is also an author. His literary avatar, named Bellini, is a private eye whose deeds are recounted in Bellini and the Sphinx (made into a film) and two other novels. Not shying from violence and sex, Bellotto’s fiction unabashedly captures the sleazy underside of contemporary São Paulo. Unfortunately, at present his works are available only in Portuguese.
The greatest fictional private detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes, is the focus of late-night television personality Jô Soares’s hilarious pastiche A Samba for Sherlock, source of the film The Xango of Baker Street. By far the most polarizing work I have ever translated, it infuriated dyed-in-the-wool Sherlockians as much as it delighted more detached readers. In the 1880s, Holmes (who supposedly had learned fluent Portuguese when researching exotic poisons in Macau) and the clueless, Nigel Bruce-inspired Dr. Watson are in Rio de Janeiro at the invitation of Emperor Pedro II to find a stolen Stradivarius the monarch had given one of his many paramours. In the course of the investigation Holmes confronts a series of grisly murders of young women (and incidentally coins the term serial killer).
So whence the controversy? Because Soares’s Holmes invariably draws wrong conclusions, usually to comic effect. His misadventures include suffering diarrhea from the spicy Brazilian cuisine while in hot pursuit of the killer, and (horror of horrors for Baker Street Irregulars) falling in love with a beautiful biracial actress. In short, Sherlock becomes thoroughly “Brazilianized” by his exposure to Rio’s tropical paradise, even forsaking his cocaine habit for the local “Indian cigarettes” (cannabis). Reviews of the novel sharply divided into those who excoriated the blasphemous treatment of a hallowed icon and those who, going along with the joke, enjoyed an irreverent romp marked by wit and a good-natured parody.
Another common policial subgenre deals with the professional hit man (“rented assassin,” as he’s known in Portuguese). The internationally acclaimed Patrícia Melo first came to literary attention with her novel The Killer, made into the film Man of the Year. Its antihero Máiquel stumbles by accident upon the lucrative trade of murder for pay and is soon in great demand; hired by businessmen to rid the neighborhood of young thieves and troublemakers, he quickly gains “respectability,” until things begin to fall apart. A sequel, Lost World, picks up Máiquel’s story ten years later.
Rubem Fonseca, indispensable to any discussion of the policial, has used his complex and rounded hit man, known only as José, in several short stories and as protagonist of the novel The Seminarian (as yet untranslated into English). José narrates the intriguing “The Book of Panegyrics” from The Taker and Other Stories (Open Letter, 2008) as well as “Guardian Angel,” “Belle,” and “Xania,” from Winning the Game and Other Stories (Tagus Press, 2013). In “Teresa” (published in EQMM) he eliminates two parasites who are imprisoning and abusing an elderly widow. Afterwards he says, “I’m a hit man. I kill for money.” And adds, “Not always.”
Like detective/mystery works from other countries, Brazilian fiction sometimes highlights ordinary citizens, neither policeman nor PI, who are thrust into solving a crime. In Fonseca’s novel Bufo & Spallanzani, Gustavo Flávio is a “civilian” and would-be writer who works for an insurance company and comes upon a suspicious case: a healthy man in his thirties takes out a million-dollar policy and a month later dies of natural causes–or does he? Flávio’s obsession with the case will lead to tetrodotoxin, defenestration, a ruined career, and a near-fatal run-in with a jealous husband.
Space limitations oblige this to be a mere appetizer despite the copious smorgasbord of crime fiction in a constantly evolving genre coming out of South America’s largest country. In a future blog I plan to address some of the newer names emerging on the literary crime front in Brazil.