Bloody Murder in Brazil


The mystery in Brazil, as an indigenous genre, started late, grew in popularity slowly but, by the close of the 20th. Century, blossomed in quantity and  quality and  acquired distinctly Brazilian characteristics. Current Brazilian mystery authors are prolific and have gained international attention. As in the case of most countries outside of the U.S. and Western Europe, the genre made its first appearance in the form of translations, mainly of U.S. and British titles. The first Brazilian detective novel was an odd collectively written volume - O Mysterioso (The Mystery, Coelho Netto, et al, Edicao da Revista do Brasil, Sao Paulo, 1920), a team effort by noted writers and intellectuals. The sections of the novel were written serially, a technique which gives it an improvisational and disjointed character. The novel does terminate with a trial at which the jury finds an official innocent by determining that the murdered victim was not dead. A very inauspicious but somewhat prophetic beginning!


By the 1930s and 40s a few domestic writers entered the scene. Ronnie Wells ( aka Jeronimo Monteiro) published 15 police procedurals (romances policiais) and created a fictional detetective with the unusual name of Dick Peter. Like many early Latin American mystery  novels it was set abroad- in this case, New York City, and reflected elements of the British puzzle  and the U.S. hard-boiled style ( see, for example, O clube da morte – The Death Club – Livraria Martins, Sao Paulo, 1948; and A febre verde - Green Fever - Livaria Martins, Sao Paulo).


In the 1950s, Luiz Lopes Coelho published a number of police procedurals and created the first truly Brazilian detective, Douter Leite (Doctor Leite). He authored three short story collections and is frequently credited with being the first serious Brazilian mystery writer. He set his stories in Sao Paulo, employed a felicitous and classic writing style, and armed his hero with many Holmsian traits (see, O homen que matava quadros - The Man Who Murdered Paintings - Editora Civilizacao Brasileira, Rio, 1961)                         


Interestingly, in 1962, another collective mystery was published – O misterio dos MMM  (The MMM Mystery, Arnaldo Correa, et al, Edicoes de Ouro, Rio de Janiero). The ten authors set the story in Rio and it, too, was as quirky, satirical, and improvisational as the 1920 work. In the mid 1960s, Maria Alice Barroso began to publish mysteries starting with Um nome para matar (A Name to Kill, Bloch, Rio, 1967). She published the more noteworthy Quem matou Pacifico (Who Killed Pacifico, Mercado Aberto, Porto Alegre, 1984), often cited as one of the most serious literary works of the genre in Brazil. Barroso published many other works, most of which are focused on issues of economic inequality, especially in the area of land ownership in rural Brazil. They are indictments of the entrenched system of wealth distribution. This skilled author sets the pattern for many of the Brazilian mysteries to follow.


By the 1970s and 80s another type of crime writing appeared other than short stories and novels  - the “cronicas” or crime newspaper reports – that link methods of detection from fiction to true crime cases. This important hybrid is best illustrated in the work of  Jose Louzeiro (see, for example, Lucio Flavio, o passageiro da agonia, Record, Rio, 1975 or, Sociedade secreta, Editora Record, 1980 ). Also, by this time, and in the shadow of Barroso, crime fiction became a vehicle for social protest, aimed at an authoritarian government and an inequitable socio-economic system. Much of this “subversive” criticism was couched in satire, parody and farce. These social protest works – contos policiais - also mark the upsurge in interest and acceptance of the genre by the Brazilian public. By the 1980s the Brazilian “style” of social protest mystery became firmly entrenched . For example, Jair Francisco Hamms in O detetive de Florianopolis ( The Detective from Florianopolis, USFC, Florianopolis, 1983) depicts the authorities in a very negative manner with the author employing farce laced with cynicism. Similarly, Ulisses Tavares in Sete casos do detetive Xule ( Seven Cases for Detective Xule, Marco Zero, Rio, 1986) depicts the police detective - whose name means “smelly feet”- as a hapless victim of an unjust socio-economic system. Glauco Rodriques Correa  paints Brazilian society in a satirical and negative manner. Justice is not usually served in his novels (see, Crime na baia sul – South Bay Crime, Atica, Sao Paulo, 1980 and O misterio do fiscal dos canos- The Mystery of the Water Department Inspector, Mercado Aberto, Porto Alegre, 1982). The volume, Chame o ladro (Call a Thief, Edicoes Populares, Sao Paulo, 1978) edited by Moacir Amancio is an anthology of crime fiction stories that, in a not atypical fashion for Latin America, turns the genre “upside down” and depicts the authorities as the criminals and the “criminals” as those preyed upon by the authorities. In the preface Amancio writes, “We’re born with fear of the police, fear of the powerful. There’s an eye watching over everything. The agents of the law are everywhere, reading our letters, our loves, our hates. We live in a police state.” Similar sentiments are found in A republica dos assassinos ( A Republic of Assassins, Civilizacao Brasileira, Rio, 1976) by Aguinaldo Silva. In this work a ruthless and evil police official is immune from prosecution by virtue of the fear his victims feel in a corrupt legal system. Similarly Tabajara Ruas exposes level after level of corruption in A regiao submerse ( A Submerged Region, L &PM Editores, Porto Alegre, 1981).


Such mysteries with social protest themes were particularly prevalent during the politically repressive years in Brazil from 1964 to the late 1970s. A sample of these stories in English can be found in Amelia Simpson’s New Tales of Mystery and Crime from Latin America ( Farleigh Dickinson Press, 1992). The collection contains four stories by Brazilian writers, almost all of which address class and economic inequities in the country. A story by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao, “Monday’s Heads” (pages 46-55) is particularly bloody and reflects serious class hatred.


In the last 15 years or so the number and quality of Brazilian crime novels have increased significantly. The best known and highly prolific author is Rubem Fonseca, a reclusive, hard-boiled writer who has enjoyed international success. His Bufo and Spallanzani (Dutton, N.Y., 1990) is classic Fonseca – funny, clever, farcical and laced with violence. His High Art is a series of mysteries set in Rio and very well done ( Harper and Row, N.Y., 1986). His other works in English include Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts (Ecco Press, New Jersey, 1998) and The Lost Manuscript (Bloomsbury, London, 1998). One of his better short stories, “Mandrake” can be found in the Simpson volume cited above  and an early short story,” Be My Valentine,” concerned with the violent gangs of Rio, can be found in The Literary Review (Fall, 1994, Vol. 38, #1).


Patricia Melo is another popular Brazilian writer who “uses crime as a pretext to understand the squalidness of the human soul”. Her novel, The Killer, is available in English (Ecco Press, New Jersey, 1995) and won prizes in France and Germany. Her recent novel, In Praise of Lies (Bloomsbury, London, 1999) is excellent and centers a rather busy, kinky murderess. Also available in English is her novel, Inferno (Bloomsbury, London, 2000).  Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza has written a series of mysteries featuring a Rio policeman – Delgado Espinosa – who is, like his namesake, philosophical, erudite and sensitive,an unusual cop in Brazilian crime fiction! Garcia-Roza has written Uma janela en Copacabana (Companhia dos letros, Sao Paulo, 2001) and has had another published in English – The Silence of the Rain ( Henry Holt and Co., N.Y. 2002). Caio Fernando Abreu, who died in 1996, published a fascinating satirical mystery set in Sao Paulo that clearly depicts the range of social strata of that bustling metropolis ((Whatever Happened to Dulce Veiga? ( University of Texas Press, Austin,  ). Jo Soares in Samba for Sherlock (Vintage Press, 1998) has created a pastiche of a Holmes and Watson story set in Rio during the reign of Emperor Pedro II. Holmes is hired to find a stolen, valuable violin and endures great Latin madness in his quest. W.B. Ortencio, another active writer can be sampled in A Deal With Death (Thesarus, Miami, 1992). Other contemporary Brazilian crime fiction writers include Rafael Cardoso (A maneira negra, Record, Rio, 2000), Adelto Goncalves (  Barcelona brasileira, Nova Arracanda, 1999) Domingo Pelligrini (O caso da Chacara Chao, Record, Rio, 2000), and many others.


Despite a late and slow start the mystery in Brazil has emerged as a lively genre that plays an important role in shedding light on the social ills and economic inequality in that society. The mystery is a very accurate and valuable window into Brazilian culture and life , giving the reader a truly creative way to understand a country with severe problems and one in great flux.



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