|The e-book cover, designed by Peter Ratcliffe|
Cut to 2011 -- when, by midsummer, the e-version of Leighton Gage's fifth Chief Inspector Mario Silva investigation set in Brazil, A VINE IN THE BLOOD, had entered worldwide distribution. The author kindly sent me a copy, with the rueful warning that the hardcover wouldn't reach American readers until December 27 (today!). I burrowed into the e-galley, ignored all phone calls and e-mails until I'd finished reading -- yes, the plot and characters are that compelling -- and set the galley aside, waiting for the post-Christmas release date.
BUT! On November 11, still six weeks before the book's release, police in Valencia, Venezuela, reported the kidnapping at gunpoint of Major League Baseball player Wilson Ramos, of the Washington Nationals. And as the news reporters scurried to fill in the details, and to predict what the crime's effects could be on the team and the baseball season, I sat clutching my head and wondering: How often does fiction precede reality so closely?
Because here's what happens at the opening of A VINE IN THE BLOOD: The mother of Brazil's premier soccer (futebol in Brazil) player, Tico "The Artist" Santos, has just been kidnapped. And Santos is cruceial to the upcoming FIFA World Cup tournament, due to start in just 13 days. "With Tico depressed and worried about the fate of his mother, Brazil ran a grave risk of suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the country's most bitter rival, Argentina."
Still, this is, after all, a Leighton Gage detective novel -- so while it's partly "about" the kidnapping and how the Federal police can best solve it and recapture The Artist's mother, preferably alive and well, and as soon as possible, it's also rich with character interplay among Chief Inspector Mario Silva, his notorious Director Nelson Sampaio (about as venal and covetous as a man in power can be), and Silva's nephew Hector, an inspector himself (Delegado is the Brazilian term). This time, they're wrestling with the clever and lovely romantic partner of The Artist, a self-centered woman named Cintia whose desires and passions rapidly show themselves entangled in the solving of the crime ... and with the oppression grown of tropical climate and vast gulf between the rich and poor that Gage demonstrates so skillfully. This time, Agent "Babyface" Gonçalves has a huge role in the investigation, which rapidly spreads to include the drug trade, organized crime, and threats of murder.
The violence that Gage always weaves into his police investigations -- unfortunately, reflecting all too well conditions in Brazil's cities -- dips back and forth with wildly funny moments that keep popping up in A VINE IN THE BLOOD. One of my favorite bits of dialogue in the book, not relevant to the eventual solution of the crime but in a sense foreshadowing the technique's Mario and Hector's team will have to use, takes place after screams from a warehouse convince the team that they've found where The Artist's mother is being held captive, and they capture the man who's been seen going in and out of the warehouse with supplies:
Silva kicked off the interrogation. "What's your name?"
"Tulio Santiago, Senhor."
Santiago was scared, short, and hunger thin. His brown eyes, big behind steel-rimmed glasses, kept oscillating from the MP5 in Gloria's hands to the Glock on Arnaldo's belt.
"Who else is in that warehouse, Tulio?"
The prisoner squirmed. "Just my companheiro, Elvis, Senhor."
"Elvis, is it? Elvis what?"
"You weren't armed. Is Elvis?"
"Is he carrying a gun? Or a knife?"
"Oh, no, Senhor. We never carry those kinds of things." ... Santiago hung his head and sighed. He was ready to cooperate.
"Did you torture her?"
Santiago's head snapped up. "Torture her? Of course not. What kind of people do you think we are?"
"If you didn't torture her, why did she scream?"
"They all scream, Senhor. That's just the way they are. We try to keep them quiet, but it doesn't always work."
"Keep them quiet? Really? And what do you do to keep them quiet?"
"We give them nuts, Senhor, and sometimes a piece of fruit."Hunh?? Well, I leave it to you to guess who was being held hostage in that warehouse. And probably you can also guess how the Director feels about Silva having told him that The Artist's mother had been found -- when, after all, she hadn't been. Some of the Federal Police are at least as scary as the criminals, it appears!
By the time A VINE IN THE BLOOD wraps up, there have been diamond, animal smuggling, a numbers racket, and major family issues, all tangled together. Gage keeps the pace rapid, the plot unexpected, the characters intriguing and smart, in spite of the twists that baffle them from time to time. Incidentally, I happened to read the Ann Patchett novel State of Wonder around the same time last summer that I first read A VINE IN THE BLOOD. While the two books couldn't be more different, the Brazil they describe is a perfect match -- lush, fervid, richly endowed, and disturbing. Like the Venice of Donna Leon, and the Korean DMZ of Martin Limón, the Brazil of Leighton Gage demands more, more, more attention. May Chief Inspector Mario Silva keep his investigations going for a good long time, giving us armchair travelers a location to embrace even as we shudder at its criminal landscape, so clear at a distance, and yet so strangely similar to our own hidden darkness.
Oh yes, about Wilson Ramos? He was rescued after two days. His story is worth reading, too. Or watching -- here's a link. Truth and fiction, they're both pretty strange when they happen like this, aren't they?