OK, let’s have a quick show of hands. How many of you have ever read crime fiction by South American authors? Maybe Patricia Melo’s The Killer, Mempo Giardinelli’s Sultry Moon, or Jô Soares’ Samba for Sherlock? Perhaps Ernesto Mallo’s International Dagger Award-nominated Needle in a Haystack, or Juan de Recacoechea’s American Visa? How about Guillermo Orsi’s Holy City, which captured Spain’s Dashiell Hammett Prize back in 2010?
All of these works and many others from south of the Panama Canal—especially from Argentina and Brazil—have been translated into English and collected critical plaudits over the years, yet they’ve earned nowhere near the attention from U.S. readers that’s been lavished on books by, say, Scandinavian wordsmiths. Only a few South American mystery and thriller writers have seen their tales become familiar in North American bookshops, including the team of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares (Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi), and Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (The Silence of the Rain).
More often, whatever impressions we glean from fiction about misdeeds and malfeasance in South America come via stories perpetrated by native English speakers, be it Stuart Archer Cohen (The Stone Angels), Robert L. Fish (Brazilian Sleigh Ride), W.E.B. Griffin (Blood and Honor) or Leighton Gage.
Gage is an especially notable member of that set. A former advertising agency creative director, he was born in the United States but has dwelt for most of the last three decades in Brazil. He’s married to a Brazilian woman, and has spent several years already penning vivid, sometimes necessarily violent novels about Mario Silva, a onetime attorney who’s now a middle-aged chief inspector with Brazil’s Federal Police, a force that claims a wide-ranging mandate.
Like many of this genre’s protagonists (and not a few comic-book superheroes), Silva entered law enforcement in reaction to personal tragedy. As we learned in Gage’s debut novel, 2008’s Blood of the Wicked, the chief inspector’s father was slain by road bandits, who also raped his mother, propelling Silva to become a policeman and exact extracurricular revenge. These days, the widowed Silva commands an unusually honest contingent of cops who tackle assorted offenses all over the country, traveling from their base in Brasília to Rio de Janeiro, the malarial municipality of Manaus and São Paulo, Brazil’s largest metropolis.
It’s in that last city where the action begins in Perfect Hatred, the new, sixth Silva tale. A young Muslim man, Salem Nabulsi, kills a woman in her apartment, filches her infant and baby carriage, conceals explosives in that buggy, disguises himself in the dead woman’s clothes and then wheels his bomb toward the local American Consulate. At least 67 people die in the subsequent explosion, drawing the immediate attention of Silva as well as Hector Costa, his nephew and the head of the Federal Police’s São Paulo field office.
Silva hardly has a chance to comprehend this carnage, though, before he must hand the investigation over to others on his team. He’s been called away to Curitiba, a town to the southwest, where the popular, anti-corruption contender for governor in the state of Paraná, Plínio Saldana, was just assassinated during an open-air rally. The shooter, a purported idealist named Julio Cataldo, also lodged a bullet in Saldana’s bodyguard, Nestor Cambria, before he was himself slain. Circumstances point to a politically motivated homicide by a lone gunman—except that Cataldo had been a supporter of Saldana, and in video of the assassination, he looks horrified to realize what he’s done to his candidate. When, soon afterward, Nestor Cambria is suffocated in his hospital bed, the “obvious” motivations behind these events are called into question. Might Paraná’s crooked incumbent governor, instead, have conspired to eliminate his competition and cover up the crime? And why did Saldana’s no less politically passionate wife, Stella—who quickly replaces him on the campaign trail—insist on speaking to Cambria alone in the hospital, shortly before his death?
Author Gage heaps complications onto the tracks as this yarn steams ahead. Explosives from the same batch used in the São Paulo terrorist attack are shortly thereafter employed in another bombing, at Argentina’s oldest synagogue, in Buenos Aires. Ties are discovered between these atrocities and a boys-only Muslim religious school, where, according to one disgruntled father, the students’ heads are “filled with crazy ideas” about how “the State of Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth” and “America is the Great Satan.” We’re offered a most damning perspective on smuggling operations in Paraguay, one of Brazil’s neighbors to the southwest, where we’re told that law enforcement is even more crooked and incompetent than it can be in Brazil.
And as if Mario Silva didn’t have enough problems already, his all-too-familiar nemesis, deep-pocketed landowner Orlando Muniz—now awaiting trial for having killed a priest—is arranging the clandestine murders not only of the public prosecutor in his case, Zanon Parma, but Silva as well. Although there’s less incidental humor in Perfect Hatred than in some previous Gage novels, scenes in which the increasingly off-the-rails Muniz seeks to pressure assassins-for-hire into doing his bidding offer at least some comic relief. For instance, as he prepares to shoot prosecutor Parma at his island home, Muniz suddenly decides that the man’s family should perish as well—a choice to which the head hit man objects. “You’re hired killers, for Christ’s sake,” blusters Muniz. “It’s what you do.” The response: “We may be killers, Senhor, but we are not psychopaths.” That statement’s implication is obvious.
Leighton Gage concocts police procedurals that are also stories of societal ills and illusions, and are stronger for such ambitions. He isn’t the first author in this genre to exploit Brazil as a setting. Yet in his own hard-boiled, agreeably literate and tourist-cautioning fashion, he’s made South America’s largest nation accessible to readers who might otherwise never have been exposed to its jungles—both the wild and urban varieties.