(Reviewed by Guy Savage JAN 31, 2009)
“So what are your Brazilians doing? They’re using the sea route, that’s what, going to Florida by boat. Some of them die of thirst. Some drown. Fortunately, the Gulf Stream runs a few miles offshore. If it didn’t, their bodies would be washing up on Florida’s beaches, scaring the shit out of legitimate tourists.”
The types of books we read change over time, and for the past year or so I find that I am shifting towards the darker realms of crime and noir fiction. Decades ago, I ploughed through Agatha Christie, but these days I am drawn to crime novels written from across the globe. Recently, for example, I’ve read several Val McDermid novels. I’m drawn not just to her great writing style, but also for the Scottish settings. So when I saw Buried Strangers, a police procedural set in Brazil, I really wanted to read this novel. It sounded like my sort of book (dark, intense); as a fan of Brazilian film (City of God, Elite Squad, Manda Bala), I am fascinated by the explosive violence and corruption on every level of Brazil’s fiercely hierarchal society.
Buried Strangers, Leighton Gage’s second novel, features Mario Silva, the Chief Inspector for Criminal Matters of the Federal Police of Brazil. Based in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, Silva also appeared in Gage’s first novel, Blood of the Wicked, but Buried Strangers can be read without reading the first novel in the series.
Intense and gripping from page one, the novel begins with a team of police investigators and forensic experts arriving in an area outside of São Paolo. A handyman has reported human remains discovered by a roaming Old English Sheepdog. The diminutive detective Yoshiro Tanaka and his team scour the area expecting to find a single skeleton, but pathologist Gilda Caropreso realizes that they are in the midst of an entire graveyard of victims:
“She was about to kneel down again when the sun crept over the encircling rim of forest. Long shadows fell across the field, emphasizing irregularities in the carpet of green. In the altered light, row upon row of rectangular mounds suddenly became visible.”
While the forensic experts set to work to discover what clues they can, Tanaka juggles his nagging, rapacious wife with the demands of the investigation. Given the sheer numbers of those buried in the impromptu graves--entire families, small children, and even babies, it’s clear that the police have an important case on their hands. Are the police in the process of chasing one of the worst serial killers in Brazil’s violent, turbulent history, or have they stumbled upon some sort of cult? One of the first questions to ask about a case of this magnitude is how can so many people--entire families--go missing in silence?
The police chew over the approximately 32,000 missing persons cases they process a year, but remarkably very few cases involve entire families. And so the mystery deepens, until a family of four is reported missing by one of their concerned shantytown neighbors….
A crime novel set in another country succeeds when the author creates a story in which the type of crime is somehow unique to the culture, or conversely if the author conveys the manner in which a criminal investigation is shaped by the country’s political or social system. Therefore, one of the things I ask for when I read a crime novel set in another country is a strong sense of place. Gage achieves this from the novel’s inception when the police team and forensic investigators attempt to search through a deserted field for human remains. This "field" is right next to luxury houses owned by the rich “an ersatz paradise only a few Paulistas could afford.” This section of undeveloped rainforest borders the Amazon and the vegetation doesn’t yield easily:
“Frost coated the samambaia ferns like a sugar glaze. Nocturnal animals rustled in the darkness. Gilda’s breath came out in white clouds, spreading and vanishing in the windless air. Twice she heard gunshots punctuating the rumble of traffic on the nearby belt road. The temperature was two degrees below freezing. The location was a rainforest less than twenty kilometers from the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere. The jungle that surrounded them was as thick as any in the Amazon.”
And of course the jungle is a perfect place to hide bodies--especially in a country in which the wealthy stay safely guarded in their walled compounds while the country’s poor struggle to survive in shantytowns the police don’t dare enter. It’s in Brazil, the country with perhaps the sharpest demarcations between the very rich and the very poor--the country with the largest private fleet of helicopters that safely transport the very rich across the city of São Paolo without risk of being kidnapped--that the poor people of Brazil can disappear so easily without a trace. And it’s also here in Brazil that those ostensibly employed to solve crime, see crime as an opportunity for extortion and a way in which to supplement meager salaries.
Gage’s series protagonist Chief Inspector Mario Silva comes into the story when news of the mass graves reaches his desk. While his boss, Sampaio thinks Silva’s talents are best used digging up dirt (real or imagined) on a political rival, Silva deftly juggles Sampaio’s demands with the investigation of the mass graves. Soon Silva uncovers a nest of corruption, blackmail, and murder that appears to be linked to the lucrative illegal immigrant smuggling trade.
While Buried Strangers is a fantastic mystery tale, the author doesn’t rely on story alone. The characterizations here are pitch perfect (FBI agent Grant Unger was my favorite), and with just a line or two of description, Gage nails his characters. There’s Silva’s boss “a man who believed in using the powers of his office to forward what he believed to be good causes, and foremost among the good causes was the continued advancement” of himself--to criminal profiler, Dr Boceta, a man who:
“never used one word if he could use two, never employed a shorter word if he could think of a longer one, and always took detours before he got to the point. He was one of those people who could break up a friendly office conversation around the watercooler just by putting in an appearance.”
Crafting an incredible sense of place, Gage conveys the essence of a country in which life is cheap, corruption is a way of life, and everyone--well almost everyone has a price. Subtly blending relevant history with social commentary, Buried Strangers is a chilling, intelligent police procedural and the perfect introduction into the realm of Brazilian crime fiction.
- Amazon readers rating: from 30 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Buried Strangers at the author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Blood of the Wicked (2008)
- Buried Strangers (2009)
- Dying Gasp (2010)
- Every Bitter Thing (2010)
- A Vine in the Blood (2011)
- Perfect Hatred (2013)
- The Ways of Evil Men (January 2014)
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- Official website for Leighton Gage
- MostlyFiction.com interview with Leighton Gage
- International Noir Fiction review of Blood of the Wicked
- MostlyFiction.com review of Dying Gasp
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Way of Evil Men
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About the Author:
Leighton Gage has lived in Australia, Europe, and South America and traveled widely in Asia and Africa. He visited Spain in the time of Franco, Portugal in the time of Salazar, South Africa in the time of apartheid, Chile in the time of Pinochet, Argentina in the time of the junta, Prague, East Germany, and Yugoslavia under the Communist yoke. He is fluent in three languages and conversant in three more.
He has a daughter and three grandchildren in Paris, a daughter in The Netherlands, and two more in the United States.
He and his wife spend much of their time in Brazil, her native country.
Sadly, Leighton Gage died on July 26, 2013 from pancreatic cancer.