September 1998
Book Review

Goes to Rio

The silliness occasionally threatens to get out of hand, but all in all A Samba for Sherlock is a colorful if often cartoonish story that entertains on many levels. And it has a smooth, highly readable translation.

Bondo Wyszpolski

A Samba for Sherlock, by Jô Soares, trans. by Clifford E. Landers (Pantheon, 271 pp., $23)

Published and praised in Europe before reaching these shores, A Samba for Sherlock begins with a grisly murder and then shifts gears: It's May of 1886 and the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt has just arrived in Rio de Janeiro to perform in the operas Fedora and Camille. For the sake of meeting her and seeing her perform, Emperor Dom Pedro II has journeyed to Rio from Petrópolis, the summer home of the imperial government, 41 miles away.

It also transpires that the Stradivarius violin that the Emperor had given to the baroness Maria Luísa has been stolen. Upon hearing of this, Sarah Bernhardt immediately suggests that Dom Pedro contact her friend Sherlock Holmes.

Before long, the reader will detect an emerging wryness in Jô Soares' prose. It's clear we're in for a mix of historical and fictional characters in highly improbable situations. Sometimes, but by no means always, the humor is low-key but poignant, such as this backhand poke at newspaper reporters:

"`What do you think of Brazilian men?" Alberto Fazelli asked [Sarah Bernhardt] lasciviously; he was not a journalist but was nevertheless impertinent."

We're soon introduced to Police Inspector Mello Pimenta, who will spend much of the novel trying to figure out the murder. Rather, murders. Because with a second, near identical crime, the pressure is on to bring the criminal to justice.

When Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. John Watson, receive the telegram from Brazil, they're ready to drop everything and sail the next day.

The murderer has a highly unusual `signature.' When he kills a woman he cuts a flap of skin from her inner thigh and leaves a violin string curled up in her pubic hair. We wonder, can he commit more than four murders?—or will he get himself another violin.

Before long, Holmes and Doc Watson become involved in this case as well, and in fact Holmes will coin the term `serial murder' to describe this kind of repetitive murder. The swirling combination of humor and horror may remind one of Rubem Fonseca, the novel High Art in particular.

Are there potential suspects? Oh, yes, quite a few, because A Samba for Sherlock is filled with major and secondary characters, some real and some not such as the dissolute nobleman Júlio Augusto Pereira, marquis of Salles; the sensitive poet Olavo Bilac, who becomes lost in the beauty of the first two dead girls when he sees them in the morgue; and the book dealer Miguel Solera de Lara.

Soares has a good time with Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective is here depicted as nearsighted and clumsy, and while speaking with the Emperor he knocks over a table with priceless Sèvres porcelain, a gift from Napoleon Bonaparte to Marie Louise of Hapsburg.

Despite his lack of grace and his deductions that rather humorously miss the mark, Holmes manages to foil the murderer and rescue one of his intended victims. Anna Candelária is an actress and a real knock-out of a girl, and although both of them go to great lengths to consummate their passion for one another there's always some kind of obstacle that pops up.

Watson comes in for his share of abuses as well: At the ilê (temple) of the babalorixá (high priest) Ioruba Nagô, King of Oba Shite, Watson's body is taken over by a she-devil called a pomba-gira. The demon is a bit rowdy, makes outrageous demands, and gives only vague answers. Poor Watson, I guess it isn't so elementary after all.

Hey, and what about that missing Stradivarius?

Although Soares must have chuckled to himself frequently while writing this novel, the silliness occasionally threatens to get out of hand. By the end, one may decide that it's been a good read and a good ride, too, a colorful if often cartoonish story that entertains on many levels. If I was to grade it, I'd give it a solid `B,' and point out that it has a smooth, highly readable translation.

This Brazilian adventure of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson will not be found or mentioned in the novels by Conan Doyle, which are purportedly narrated by Watson himself. The reason is a simple one: Holmes nixes the idea. Too embarrassing? You won't need to be a detective to figure out why.

A Samba for Sherlock,
two excerpts:

"Colonel, there's something I've been wanting to ask you for a long time. How is it possible that your parents and your brothers and sisters are so white and blond and you came out like that, so dark?"

Mendes Freire drank his liqueur and explained, speaking to Amorim and his friends.

"It's an almost supernatural story. My mother was two months pregnant and went to spend a few days at my grandfather's plantation. One day, when she was walking in the environs, a delirious Negro slave came from the fields and tried to overtake her. My mother dashed for the plantation with the slave running behind her. She was able, thank God, to make it to the house and my grandfather's men seized the poor crazy Negro. I was born with this color and this hair because of the scare my mother had."

Mendes Freire's friends shook their heads, touched. Amorim respectfully opined, "The colonel will pardon my saying so, but I have the impression that the Negro caught the good lady."


Holmes recalled an incident that had occurred many years before, on a hunt in India.

"Imagine, inspector, I was hunting tigers in the middle of the jungle, in the Punjab region, with a friend named Wilfred Marmeduke, when he was bitten by a naja in a very delicate spot—how can I put it—right on the end of his penis."

"Why precisely there?!" asked the horrified Mello Pimenta.

"Marmeduke had decided to yield to an urgent physiological necessity, and by chance the stream fell on the head of the sleeping serpent."


"I saw it would be to no avail to transport him, as Wilfred was writhing in frightful pain. I mounted my horse and sped to the nearest village, intending to seek out the only doctor there, but the man was in the middle of surgery. So I asked him how I should proceed."

"What did the doctor say?" asked Mello Pimenta anxiously.

"He said there was only one way to avoid the death of my dear friend, for whom I nurtured the greatest affection. He ordered me to make an incision with a knife, at the location of the bite, and, with my mouth, suck out all the venom."

"Fantastic, Mr. Holmes. And that's how you saved his life?"

"No, inspector. He died," replied Sherlock Holmes, his gaze fixed on the horizon.

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A Samba for Sherlock
288 pp

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