««« back to CC Books


Leighton Gage

"Senhora, I've been in the service of a corrupt legal system for all my life. I'm nothing if not a pragmatist... but I'm also a realist. And any evil I do, I attempt to do it for the greater good."

§ Read about the recent drug gang violence in a couple of over-crowded prisons in northern Brazil? Dozens dead, some decapitated, military special forces sent in to cool the situation, and you wonder is this really possible in the beautiful, exotic country that recently hosted the World Cup (soccer) and the Olympics?

Well, read the Brazilian crime novels of the recently deceased Leighton Gage if you want to get an insider/outsider perspective. Gage was an American ad man with a Brazilian wife who lived near São Paulo for years, so when he wrote these Delegado Mario Silva novels, he was certainly familiar with the problems of contemporary Brazil.

Gage wrote his Brazilian detective fiction as scenarios, with very little descriptive pumping, just the jump-cut narrative you can see any night of the week on TV, although his attention to local detail gives the action a riveting documentary feel even when the action is interrupted for an elegant history lesson or character profile.

Leighton Gage: Blood of the Wicked

So, know nothing about Brazil, never been there or if you have, never left the beach? Don't worry -- Gage tells you everything you need to know and you'll come away from Blood of the Wicked feeling you're a expert on Brazilian corruption, land reform, the Catholic Church, and murder in the exotic country that the coolly ironic Stefan Zweig once called "the land of the future... and always will be."

It's all a bit of a paradox, an involuntary fantasy zone like a wet dream, so absurd, so delightfully dangerous, so beyond anyone's control or responsibility. Read any of the Mario Silva novels and you might think Brazil's tropicalismo vibe is an illusion. The action is brutal; little distinction is made between personal and political murder, vengeance and house-cleaning. In Blood of the Wicked, the landed class and its capangas (foremen/hired gunmen) and police death squads torture and kill as if these pursuits are mere farming rituals, their inspiration taken from Heinrich Himmler. The State and the Church -- that bilateral moral interface -- have almost no effective authority in a social order that is so corrupted that the various levels of public protection -- Federal, State, Municipal -- are openly contemptuous of each other, so feral and territorial that their police act more like regional warlords than servants of the people.

You'd think that the protagonist -- Chief Inspector Mario Silva, a Federal cop working out of Brasilia -- would have some pre-emptive authority when he's sent by his Director to Cascatas, a back-water town deep in the tobacco lands south of Sâo Paulo, but the corruption is so systemic that Silva is often the last to know when anything important to the case breaks, a new murder or a new witness, so that he's reduced to a mere point-of-view for the reader rather than an intellectual man of action or a pulp fiction bully. This might be an advantage, as neither he nor his team -- his nephew Delegado Hector Costa and Agente Arnaldo Goncalves -- get in the way of the story, which is as much a documentary expose of the Brazilian land wars as it is a murder mystery.

You know who's doing a lot of the killing: Colonel Emerson Ferraz, the arrogant primate in charge of the municipal force, as this is a Chekovian secret known early to the reader but not the visiting Federal investigators. You think this is the back story as the initial investigation concerns the death of Bishop Dom Felipe Antunes, a priest who has flown into Cascatas to consecrete a new chapel only to be gunned down by a sniper as he steps out of the helicopter. Immediately the assassination becomes part of not only church politics but also the land war... and the political divide that cripples today's Brazil, a country of 180 million where 1% of the population owns 50% of all the arable land.

These figures come from a short erudite background essay; Gage appends one to the end of each novel in the Mario Silva series, so you know he isn't just blowing smoke when it comes to the issues.

Chief Inspector Mario Silva: Federal policeman, trained as a lawyer, ex-smoker, his father murdered by drug punks, brother-in-law too, son died as a child from leukemia, wife somewhat alcoholic as a result, himself an occasional drinker, but disciplined, acerbic, polite in most situations, ironic rather than sarcastic, loyal to his family and country beyond all else, pragmatic, so will take extra-legal vengeance if the state can provide no justice. Ergo, the world of Mario Silva is a modern western within the lawless wilderness that is Brazil.

Silva (to Stella Saldana in Perfect Hatred, Book 4 of the series):

"Senhora, I've been in the service of a corrupt legal system for all my life. I'm nothing if not a pragmatist... but I'm also a realist. And any evil I do, I attempt to do it for the greater good."

So he's a low-key vigilante if it's the only way forward. He allows women to go free if they are the victims of habitual wife beaters, and arranges for criminal escapes as a means for extra-judicial executions. Sometimes he and his capos merely watch as the criminal is eliminated by his victims or other criminal colleagues. On a lighter level he's not adverse to the use of blackmail to obtain a quid pro quo, some information or concession from a witness or suspect who is being stubborn or has a genuine fear for his/her safety. His manner is cool, polite, official, seldom the bully cop with a Glock 9 and a Federal Warrant badge.

Yet for the most part Mario Silva is just an outline, a manichino the reader inhabits as a point-of-view rather as a protagonist. The protagonist is always Brazil, who is also the antagonist, at war with itself as it struggles within the stretched latitudes of its volatile landscapes and the clash of its prismatic cultures. Think of Brasilia, that spaceport of human desire and fantasy, carved out of the wilderness as the new capital in the late 1950s, a colony of bureaucrats, idealists, opportunists, camp followers and prospectors, located on the central highlands, the last chance for reason before the Amazon jungle. Civilization is always theoretical in Silva's Brazil.

 Leighton Gage: Every Bitter Thing

 Gage: A Perfect Hatred

 Gage: A Vine in the Blood

 Gage: The Ways of Evil Men

"That's the story. The rest is detail."

The seven novels that Gage wrote before his untimely death in 2013 are like westerns with a modern art feel. Much the action -- the sweet and the profane -- is driven through the dialogue. Nevertheless, despite the script-writer minimalism, and the jump cuts, imagery exists: that flashy, beautifully profane landscape with its lurid atmosphere of luxury and poverty, of predator and prey, and the technicolor of life and death.

Characters -- especially the cops -- have little downtime action, always seem to be on the job. The criminals are mostly rich and psychotic, dominant apes with little culture beyond greed and acres of land. The cops are urban and bourgeois, and when they're not, they're usually corrupt. The Federales are the wands of virtue, the State and Municipal cops -- corrupt. Journalists... well, both clever and stupid because while they're smart enough to find their own leads, they're stupid enough to follow them into injury and death.

In Blood of the Wicked, the lesbian editor Diana and her blonde lover Dolores are murdered, likewise the sexy model turned TV reporter Vincenza Pelosi who thinks no one will touch a babe with a camera and a national audience. In both instances, the women are tortured and raped before their executions. The primal beastliness is depressing, yet in no way sensational within the context of modern Brazil. The mass graves and drug homicides are always out there in the sugar cane and tobacco fields, the jungle reservations and the art galleries of the gleaming post-modern high-rise favelas of Oscar Americano.

In The Ways of Evil Men, men beat women, treat them as slaves and unpaid sexual servants, so if the Senhora ups and kills the brute Senhor, why should she be sent down for twenty years, be separated from her kids? Silva turns the blind eye. In Perfect Hatred, a Muslim terrorist operating from the lax jurisdiction of Paraguay is tied to a chair in a back room of his fancy car dealership to await his death in a massive explosion from the C4 cache he acquired for his mass killings in São Paulo and Buenos Aires. Silva turns the blind eye. Orlando Muniz, the psychopathic landowner and mass murderer, is allowed to drift to his death over the famous Ignaçu Falls into the Devil's Throat as the Federal police hover overhead in a helicopter. Silva turns the blind eye. A killer rapist is released from prison as bait to entrap a serial killer and when the rapist gets murdered, Silva turns the blind eye. Justice -- Brazilian style -- has been served. Like chess, sometimes sacrifices have to be made.

In the beginning of his career as a Federal policeman, Silva dedicates a large part of his off-hours to tracking down the killer of his father. When he finds the tattooed punk in question, he executes him with a bullet to the head and buries him in a lonely place. He repeats the process when his brother-in-law is shot and killed in his stalled car by a São Paulo street bandit. It's all off the record, personal vengeance vigilante style in a country so overwhelmed by crime and corruption and the imbalance of wealth that no other form of justice is possible for murders that are tolerated as mere traffic accidents or robberies gone bad. No wonder Brazil fell under a military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. No wonder commercial trucks are still hijacked and robbed on the freeway between Rio and São Paulo. There's a tropicalismo chaos that runs behind Brazilian society, sometimes beautiful, sometimes fatal, as when the jaguar meets the caiman at the lagoon.

The lightest novel in the series is A Vine in the Blood, which is about the kidnapping of the mother of Brazil's number one soccer player, a striker affectionately known as "The Artist", just before the World Cup. The whole country is outraged, even Inspector Silva and his squad. The popular belief is that the Argentinians are behind it, as they are expected to meet Brazil in the final... but of course the truth turns out to be far more mundane and closer to home. The kidnappers demand payment in diamonds. How are they transferred? By carrier pigeon, as if the criminals took their inspiration from Pablo Escobar. So much of the action is quite funny, and you almost forget about the few murders that occur.

Meanwhile, someone is always out to get Delegado Silva, settle old scores. In the classic sense of the série noire, a Leighton Gage bad man is truly bad; although he rises at dawn as other men do, he lives in darkness, in the psychopathic interval between the moon and the sun.

© LR Jan 2017

at Amazon: USA | Canada | UK

*Check out LR's OUTLAW ACADEMIC »»

or LR's novel RADIO BRAZIL »»