Monday, January 11, 2010

Crime Fiction: Dying Gasp by Leighton Gage

My earliest introduction to the jungle-embraced city of Manaus, Brazil, came in Black Orchid, Nicholas Meyer and Barry Jay Kaplan’s 1977 historical thriller about riches, romance and the devious purloining of rubber-tree seeds at the turn of the last century. Their story made the town sound almost as mythical and magical as it was politically corrupt--a place doing constant battle to protect its manmade wonders from the encroaching rain forest. Manaus sat in the heart of rubber-tree country, and as demand for rubber heightened in the 19th century, the town prospered. “Latex lords grew magnificently wealthy,” according to Greg Grandin, whose terrific 2009 non-fiction book, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, reintroduced me to this mysterious metropolis in the wild heart of the Amazon. “With their Beaux Arts palaces, neoclassical municipal buildings, electric trams, wide Parisian boulevards, and French restaurants, the cities of Manaus, located about nine hundred miles up the Amazon River, and Belém, the region’s principal Atlantic port, completed for the title of ‘tropical Paris.’”

Is it any wonder that, after enjoying Black Orchid, I promised myself I would someday visit Manaus?

Then again ... maybe not, now that I’ve read Leighton Gage’s third Brazil-set crime novel, Dying Gasp (Soho Crime). In his hands, Manaus is transformed from the pulchritudinous beauty of my vivid imagination into a decrepit, syphilitic whore. When told that he’ll have to go to Manaus on assignment, a federal officer lists the city’s dubious attractions: “Dengue, malaria, yellow fever, bad food--” No matter what the meal, everything apparently tastes like fish in Manaus. (A running gag here is the visiting cops’ daunting quest for an eatery serving something other than seafood.) The local weather appears to be unbearably hot, the streets filthy, and the people indolent and dishonest, or at least that’s what I gather from Gage’s tale. (If this portrayal is wildly askew from reality, Manaus tourism officials ought to have a serious talk with the author.)

The actual plot of Dying Gasp centers around kidnapping and the production of so-called snuff films. Teenager Marta Malan, the granddaughter of a prominent politician from Recife, has disappeared along with her older girlfriend, Andrea de Castro. Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Federal Police in Brasília has been called in to find her. A tip as to her whereabouts comes from far off Amsterdam, where videos showing the rape and decapitation of a young woman are traced back to Brazil. A voice on one of those videos sounds like that of Claudia Andrade, previously known to the chief inspector for supplying vital organs harvested from living subjects. Silva’s investigation soon leads to Manaus and José Luis Ignácio Braga, aka The Goat, a “whoremaster” specializing in adolescent girls. The Goat picked up Marta in one of his sweeps for involuntary employees, and he has imprisoned her until she agrees to do his bidding. But Marta is nothing if not headstrong, and refuses to cooperate. Since he can’t let her loose, The Goat decides to sell her to a woman who’s supposedly securing willing damsels for horny European clients -- a woman who is, of course, the notorious Andrade.

The white slavery theme isn’t exactly revolutionary in crime fiction, and the details supplied here may be too much for squeamish readers. Gage does, however, bring some new interest to the subject with his fictional participants in that business, especially the irredeemably repulsive Goat and the arrogant, well-hung scumbags who are recruited for snuff video performances. If Claudia Andrade seems too depraved to be believed, she’s at least balanced out by Mario Silva, a dogged but unheroic detective who’s indifferent to power mongers as well as to his politically ambitious (and expediently religious) boss, and who is married to a woman quietly searching for salvation from her personal pain at the bottom of every liquor bottle. The competent but “irreverent and sarcastic” Agente Arnaldo Nunes makes an excellent assistant to Silva, contributing many of this yarn’s lighter elements, and the priest who struggles to win the chief inspector’s help in rescuing other innocents like Marta Malan turns out to be far more interesting -- and stupid -- than one expects.

Although this is Leighton Gage’s third Mario Silva novel, following 2007’s Blood of the Wicked and 2008’s Buried Strangers, it’s the first I have read all the way through. Now I have to go find those earlier works again. Anyone who can combine horror and humor between book covers as deftly as Gage does deserves closer attention.



Blogger Leighton Gage said...

Thank you for your thoughtful review of my latest, "Dying Gasp".
I hope you enjoy the other books as much as I enjoyed reading what you wrote.
You and your readers might be interested in another kind of reading - an article I recently wrote on the subject of Manaus' decline:
Our blog, Murder is Everywhere, is supported by six different mystery authors writing about six different countries. There's a new contribution just about every day. We don't write about our books, we write about our settings - and we try to keep it interesting.
Today, for example, I hold forth on Why Brazil Speaks Portuguese:
By the way, I've already had my run-in with the Secretary of Tourism for the State of Amazonas. He doesn't like me any more than I like him - but truth is on my side. Trust me, you won't like the place.

Monday, January 11, 2010 at 10:00:00 AM PST  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Leighton, I wrote in my review of your fine book that I doubted whether you would be popular with the Tourist ministry.

Monday, January 11, 2010 at 1:14:00 PM PST  

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