Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mystery Review: Leighton Gage, BURIED STRANGERS

I've had a copy of Leighton Gage's second Mario Silva police procedural for about a month now, which has given me time to enjoy it twice over. It won't be on the market until January, but here's a heads-up: Gage's Brazilian investigation series is solid, intense, and an introduction to a complex social structure driven by class, immense poverty contrasting with extreme power, and often a hunger for the perceived privileges of American life.

BURIED STRANGERS takes its title from a passage in Matthew 27: "They took counsel and bought ... the ... field to bury strangers." And it opens with a delegado titular -- what I gather is a precinct captain -- accompanying a medical examiner in examining, literally, a field of buried strangers. Yoshiro Tanaka gets an adrenaline rush from visiting crime scenes.

Are you new to Brazil? Does a Japanese name for a police officer startle you in the context of this Portuguese-heritage tropical nation whose native populations have been overrun and nearly destroyed?

Get used to it. Gage, whose passion for his adopted land allows him to write with full knowledge of its beauty and its violence at once, offers constant shifts in view that peel back the layers of a harshly stratified society. From the Japanese presence in the nation (and its roots in indentured servitude), to the interplay of tourism and politics, to the ghastly conditions within Brazil's city ghettoes (called favelas), Gage unfolds scene after scene of extreme contrast.

He writes with two principal investigators' voices: that of Chief Inspector Mario Silva (featured in the publisher subtitle), and that of Silva's nephew Hector, also a seasoned investigator but often overshadowed by his well-known and television-featured uncle. Silva's difficult marriage made up a powerful thread in Gage's first in this series, BLOOD OF THE WICKED. In BURIED STRANGERS it's Hector's romantic life that keeps coming into the business, as he explores whether an attractive medical investigator can become a woman friend, or even a namorada -- a girlfriend.

Another contrast between the two volumes lies in the form of violence exposed: The first one involved many firearm deaths and threats, while in the second, it appears that some person or persons are murdering impoverished families with an eye to mutilating their bodies after death. A cult? A coven? Hector and his not-yet-namorada have other suspicions that hint at an even more immoral purpose to the deaths.

Don't count on any relief from that stress as you meet the Americans in this investigation, though. Advance galleys are prone to change, and the text isn't supposed to be quoted, for that reason -- but a sample of dialogue from one of the less likeable figures here includes, "Why the hell would you want to go out of your way to help a cleaning woman? They're supposed to serve you, not the other way around, right?"

So hold some space on the shelves for Leighton Gage's expanding series. Yes, his third Silva investigation is well underway, and with characteristic good sense, Soho Crime even has his fourth one under contract.

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