Leighton Gage on crime and crime fiction in Brazil, Part I
When he came back two years later, he “ran smack dab into all of the bad things that I’d pushed into the back of my mind: the crime; the obscene wealth; the staggering poverty. I couldn’t take it. I went to live in Miami for a time. And found myself missing Brazil all over again. Now, a quarter of a century on, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have to live here all the time, but I do have to live here some of the time. I get homesick when I’m away for too long.”
Gage's first novel, Blood of the Wicked, published by Soho Crime, was one result of his exposure to the uglier side of the country. In Part I of a two-part interview, he talks to Detectives Beyond Borders about that book, its follow-up, and the vast, beautiful and violent land that inspired them.
(Read Part II of the interview with Leighton Gage here.)
Why is Brazil, northern Brazil in particular, a good setting for crime fiction?
Verisimilitude, for one thing: You can believe in cops who murder people because there are cops who murder people; you can believe in people that will kill you for your cell phone because there are people that will kill you for your cell phone; you can believe in the impunity of the rich, because it’s a fact that rich Brazilians seldom go to jail – no matter how grave their offense.
Add drug lords who operate with the support of government officials (and, not uncommonly, are government officials). Add Indians living in a vast rain forest who’ve never had contact with modern civilization. Add the eight- and nine-year-old girls, working in brothels before their breasts have bud. The list goes on and on. There are hundreds, thousands of stories to be told.
You mentioned the north. It’s a vast region that embraces several states and the Amazon rain forest as well. Salvador, in Bahia, was the capital long before Brasilia, long before Rio de Janeiro, and for a longer time than both of them put together. The countryside in northern Brazil has a character all its own. There’s a feudal aspect to it. Some of the great landlords still hold agricultural workers in virtual bondage. Those landlords have pet judges and politicians and hired gunmen to resort to in case the judges and politicians don’t see things their way. There are borders up there with five other countries. Arms smuggling and drug trafficking is rife. It’s like the Wild West.
Issues of land rights and police violence loom large in Blood of the Wicked. What single event or set of events made you say, “That’s it; I’m writing a novel.”? How did you then proceed to build a novel from that initial idea?
Blood of the Wicked was never meant to be a stand-alone. I didn’t just say to myself, “That’s it; I’m writing a novel.” I said, “Wow! All this s*** is happening, and hardly anyone outside of this country knows anything about it. What a great opportunity for a series. I’m sitting on a writer’s gold mine here!”
But I’m a big believer in character-driven fiction, so when I started laying the groundwork for the Silva novels, I started with my protagonist. He had to be a male. (A woman would wind up spending more of her time fighting sexism than fighting crime.) He had to be someone with enough rank to get things done. He had to have a mandate that would allow him to act anywhere in the country. He had to have a highly developed sense of morals. And he had to have a reason to fight crime and criminals that went beyond a simple vocation. I mixed them all together with the personas of two senior law-enforcement officials I know, and I came up with Mario Silva, a chief inspector of the Brazilian Federal Police.
Then I delved into the newspapers and started collecting material for stories. Blood of the Wicked deals with land reform. Buried Strangers, due for publication in January of 2009, deals with something entirely different, but if I tell you what it is, it would be a spoiler. Readers get halfway through the book before they discover why people are being murdered. One thing I can tell you, though: It’s not the sort of thing that could happen in downtown Los Angeles, or in the suburbs of New York, or anywhere else in America. But it sure as hell happens here.
Not all the crimes in Blood of the Wicked involve the landless and the landowners, yet the issue underlies everything, leading to false leads and wrong guesses. I’d like you to talk about this, if you would, preferably without too many plot spoilers.
Okay, but I can’t do it without giving you some statistics. Some people think Brazil is a poor country. It isn’t. Brazil is a rich country populated largely by poor people. The income distribution is only a little better than that of Bangladesh. A mere 1.6% of the population owns almost 50% of all of the arable land. The Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement (in the book I call them the Landless Workers' League), has set out to change all of that. They now number about 1.5 million, distributed across 23 of Brazil’s 27 states. Their principal technique is what they call the “peaceful occupation of untilled property.” Except that it isn’t always untilled, and it’s hardly ever peaceful. In the majority of cases, the cops and the local politicians have a vested interest in supporting the landowners. And the landowners often have a legally acquired title to the land that’s being trespassed upon. But not always. Sometimes those titles are faked. And sometimes people get forced off land that their families have tilled for generations. So what you’ve got here are the elements of a true tragedy: a case in which right and wrong is blurred on both sides.
Another important element in Blood of the Wicked is liberation theology, a doctrine now condemned by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, but one that a number of rural priests still covertly subscribe to. Some say that clergymen who practice liberation theology are Marxists. Liberation theologians say, “Wrong. Marxists deny the existence of God. We don’t. But the poor shouldn’t have to wait until after death for their reward. We want a radical re-distribution of wealth, and we want it now.”
They regard anyone who doesn’t agree with them, and that often includes their fellow priests, as defenders of an unjust status quo. Blood of the Wicked begins with the assassination of a bishop. Early suspicion falls on liberation theologians. But it could also have been a landowner. Or it might be someone else. But I can’t tell you more without running the risk of a spoiler.
You gave your protagonist, Mario Silva, and his nephew and assistant, Hector Costa, dramatic back stories. In Silva’s case, the background is especially shocking. Why did you make this choice? What does it add to the book?
Brazilians don’t believe in honest cops, and they particularly don’t believe in honest cops who have moved up in the hierarchy. And for good reason: Cops’ salaries in Brazil are a pittance. The opportunities for earning money on the side are great. And when your boss, and your boss’s boss, and all of your colleagues are on the take, the pressure to conform is enormous.
Mario Silva and Hector Costa are rare cops by Brazilian standards, rare because they’ve both achieved positions of influence while retaining, and often acting out of, a sense of justice. Please note that I’m not using the word honest. Silva is not honest. Costa isn’t either. They’re merely just. In Brazil, honest men seldom seek out careers as cops. And if they do, their likelihood of promotion is slight. Silva and Costa are realists. They know, from the very beginning, that if they want to enforce the spirit of the law, they’re often going to have to break the letter of it.
But to do what they do, indeed to be able to perform at all within their environment, they need strong motivation, motivation that goes beyond vocational considerations. Hence the inclusion of their back stories.
(Read Part II of the interview with Leighton Gage here.)
© Peter Rozovsky 2008
Brazilian crime fiction