Frei Betto (born Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo) is a well-known figure both in literary and political circles in Brazil. As an activist friar in the 1960s, he was a staunch defender of political liberties during the cruel dictatorship that took control of the Brazilian government for two decades, and as a result he was imprisoned by the regime for several years.
He is currently a celebrated author with more than fifty published titles, and has continued his work in favor of the poor and disenfranchised of his country. His defense of the Liberation Theology put him in odds with the Vatican especially during the reigns of the last two popes, who did everything to crush the movement.
That, however, did not at all diminish his efforts - in fact, during the Lula government he led "Fome Zero," the administration's major social projects that successfully reduced death rates due to malnutrition among low-income children in the country.
His stance in defense of the disenfranchised and his disagreements with church orthodoxy have also made him a target for more conservative Catholics in the country, who tend to be very critical of his proximity with the Left.
On his first mystery novel (he is mostly a non-fiction writer) published in 1999 in Brazil but finally made available in English via Bitter Lemon Press, we follow a mysterious murder in a boarding house in downtown Rio de Janeiro: one of its residents is found stabbed and decapitated, and to top it off his eyes were removed.
There are no leads or any evidence that his room was broken into, so suspicion falls on all the other residents: a civil rights activist, a reporter, a drag queen, an aspiring actress, a political aide, the house's administrator and her two employees.
The detective assigned to the case is Olinto Del Bosco, who is an old-school kind of cop used to the harsh methods of the days of the dictatorship in lieu of the more scientific approach found on today's procedural mysteries - meaning that he will use torture to get what he wants, even if there is no evidence to back up his theories.
We are then given a profile of the different characters and their backgrounds - "Seu" Marçal, the victim, was a retired widower who peddled precious gemstones from Minas Gerais and also had a penchant for younger women.
The other residents of the hotel are a microcosm of Brazil itself, and we are presented with their backgrounds and the stories that led them to share that space. This being a Frei Betto novel, a lot of the current (at least as of 1999) social and political and social issues of the country are very present, going from police and political corruption to drug use, child prostitution and street violence.
Hotel Brasil is not for the faint of heart: Without giving out any spoilers, just sixty pages into the book two women fall into prostitution rings, there are two gruesome murders and a brutal rape - and that is just as we are introduced to the main characters.
"Postcard" Rio is barely mentioned in the tome, except for the famed Lapa Arches and the omnipresent figure of Christ the Redeemer. The action mostly takes place between Rio's City Center and the favelas - no strolls around Copacabana or Ipanema to be seen here.
The novel was translated by Jethro Soutar, who chose to keep some Portuguese expressions intact. These were not untranslatable word like "saudade," but words that are easily translatable. For instance, Inspector Del Bosco is often referred to as "delegado," which means "deputy chief" or simply "investigator", while at one point one woman is accused of being a "puta" (whore).
During an interrogation, one witness interjects "Pelo amor de Deus," which simply means "For God's sake." I am not sure how that would work with monolingual readers who do not understand some Portuguese - and though it is an interesting gimmick, I find it to be an extremely ineffective tool.
Having said that, I found Hotel Brasil to be really gripping, and its twists and turns kept me guessing until the very end. I am a pretty frequent mystery reader, and I often guess who the murderer is - but this was not the case.
All my suspicions were wrong, and when the last page came, I just asked myself, "What the..." - which makes this a must-read for lovers of the genre.
<font size="1"> Hotel Brasil
By Frei Betto
Bitter Lemon Press, $ 14.95 (e-book version available)</font>
Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He can be reached at email@example.com. This article appeared in The Brasilians.