Monday, February 24, 2014

THE WAYS OF EVIL MEN: Brazilian Crime Fiction from Leighton Gage

Author Leighton Gage used to grin mischievously about what might happen when his Brazilian crime fiction, published in the U.S. by Soho Crime, would be translated to Portuguese and released in the wonderful nation he'd made his home, with his wife Eide. Portraying crime, violence, poverty, racism, and often the seedier side of both the Catholic Church and Brazilian law enforcement, the novels would probably not be considered flattering to Brazil!

And yet the vividness of both the terrain and the social landscape in Gage's series of seven police investigations featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva also reveals the love Gage had for this wild and varied place. I know that visiting Brazil moved onto my "someday" list because of these books.

What a tale Gage unfolds in THE WAYS OF EVIL MEN! It is both his last book and, I presume, the last for the series, as Gage died of cancer last August. As I read the book, I had to stop now and then, choking up ... Leighton was such an accessible author, and so eager to talk about his experiences that made up the background for his fiction. Every few chapters, I'd want to ask him something or hear him comment or enthuse about some twist. And then I had to wait for the sorrow to pass.

The book begins, in typical Gage fashion, with a scene of enormous loss: Jade Calmon, the official tribal relations person assigned to visit the Awana on their reservation in the very rural Brazilian state of Pará, finds only two tribal members greeting her when she'd expected to meet dozens. And the two of them -- Amati and his son Raoni -- convey to Jade, with little shared language, that the other 39 members of the Awana all died at once, and have just been buried. Jade is no detective, but even she quickly realizes: Genocide has taken place.

Using every connection available, she succeeds in having Chief Inspector Mario Silva assigned to investigate. And based on what he hears before boarding a plane out of Brasilia, Silva assembles a formidable team that includes his nephew Hector Costa and the delightful "Babyface" Haraldo Gonçalves, familiar to readers of the earlier books.

Here is a classic Gage description of one of the most important men in Azevedo, the nearest "white" town to the reservation:
Omar Torres once remarked that he preferred the Grand [Hotel] to the rainforest because there were "no snakes to bit you in the a** when you drop your pants at the Grand." That was true, as far as it went, but he had another reason as well -- a far more important one. Omar Torres slept with other men's wives, and that, in the State of Pará, was a dangerous thing to do.
It's not a reason to commit genocide, though; nor is it a reason for the town to lynch the last remaining adult Awana -- or so you'd think.

Silva and his team share the last leg of their approach to the town with a journalist, Maura Mandel, also summoned by Jade Calmon. And both of these women are school friends of the niece of Silva's boss -- hence their clout in this case. Maura intends to get both a top story and a chance for some investigating of her own, which of course positions her against police procedure.

Add an alcoholic priest and a handful of land-grabbing plantation owners to the mess, and soon Silva has almost too many people with motives for secrecy and sometimes murder around him.

Settle in for a tough and enjoyable traditional detective plot from here, set in a rugged and distinctive location. Followers of the series will also savor Silva's solution to protecting eight-year-old orphan Raoni, the last of the Awana. If I could add just one chapter to the book, it would be of this youngster's arrival in ... oops. No spoilers.

I wish wholeheartedly that Leighton were still among us, whether writing or not. In his absence, I'll salute this final book of his: You were right, Leighton -- it is, indeed, your best book yet.

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