George Demko, a professor at Dartmouth University, has carved out an interesting niche for himself. He's an expert on international crime fiction. One of Professor Demko's observations is that, in Latin American crime fiction, the criminals and the cops are likely to be the same people.
In other words, hired killers, drug dealers and other felons often have day jobs – as cops. Too bad it's not only fiction.
So what's an honest cop to do? How does he manage to do his job when he's confronted by crooks within his own organization, by corrupt politicians, by Brazil's super-rich who think their money and the power it brings places them above the law?
In the real world, the cop usually knuckles under and becomes corrupt. In fiction, he usually finds a way to mete out justice, even if he sometimes has to break the law in order to do it.
Mário Silva, the protagonist in Blood of the Wicked, is the justiceiro type. He's a long-time federal cop, stationed in Brazilian capital Brasília, an ex-lawyer, now become Brazil's top crime-fighter.
He's surrounded by a cast of lesser characters, some good, most of them very, very bad. The kind of people you hate; the kind of people you're happy to see get f***** at the end of the story.
The book is a murder mystery, but it's also a contemporary tapestry of modern-day Brazil. It doesn't just entertain, it informs. The issues treated within its pages include liberation theology, the excesses of the military dictatorship, the prostitution of children and the current conflict between the landless and the great landowners.
It's a book that should have been written by a Brazilian – but wasn't. Leighton Gage is a gringo, an American who's lived in Brazil, on and off, for over thirty years. His wife is Brazilian-born and so are three of his four children.
He not only speaks the language fluently, he's also written a book in it, a non-fiction work that became the standard for teaching advertising film production in the Portuguese-speaking countries of the world.
He wrote and directed many television commercials which people living in the country would be familiar with. And when he retired from advertising, he started writing novels.
Gage confesses to being a Brazil Nut. But you wouldn't necessarily get that from reading his book. The emphasis is on violence and not on the beauty of the shadows being cast by the Sugar Loaf.
Prior to publication, the book attracted considerable interest from the trade press, being reviewed by all four of the major American publications.
Library Journal gave it a star and a "highly-recommended" rating, which basically guarantees it a place on the shelves of every library in the United States. (So you can read it for free, if you have a public library card.)
But Publisher's Weekly, another big gun in the literary field, started out their review with the words "Gage's bloody debut…" and ended it with "…is not for the faint-of-heart." The book is bloody, no doubt about that. The debate hinges upon whether the violence is gratuitous or lends verisimilitude to the story. Publisher's Weekly thinks not.
But the conventional media seems to be leaning toward the Library Journal opinion. To illustrate, Oline H. Cogdill, the Mystery columnist for the Florida newspaper Sun Sentinel, writes:
"Leighton Gage achieves both a powerful political thriller and gripping crime fiction in his fascinating debut Blood of the Wicked, set in Brazil. The author packs an immense amount of plot twists based in politics, street violence and corruption that seep into each branch of government. Drawing on several issues plaguing contemporary Brazil, Gage keeps the story moving as he looks at the different strata of society. Violence is brutal and doesn't spare anyone."
So violent, yes. Too violent? The jury is still out.
But one thing is for certain: Blood of the Wicked is certain to put Brazil on the map for many American and European readers.
A Little Taste of It
The Book's initial paragraphs:
Something took the helicopter and shook it like a jackal worrying a carcass. The bishop gripped the aluminum supports on either side of his seat and hung on for dear life.
"Clear air turbulence," the pilot observed laconically, and resumed chewing his gum.
"Merda!" the bishop muttered. He regretted the vulgarity as soon as he'd said it.
"What's that, your Excellency?"
The bishop's eyes darted to his right. In his fear and discomfort, he'd forgotten the microphones, forgotten the headphones, forgotten that the man could hear every word he said.
And what if he had? Was it not true? Was the helicopter not a merda, a great stinking, steaming merda? And who was the pilot, anyway? What had he ever done in his blessed life other than to learn how to fly the merda? How dare he criticize a man who might, God willing, be a future prince of the Church?
The pilot, whose name was Julio, and who wasn't criticizing anyone, had been distracted by a flock of vultures wheeling in graceful curves over the approaching river. He honestly hadn't heard what the bishop had said. He opened his mouth to repeat the question, then shut it again when he saw the cleric's mouth set into a thin line.
Julio had a paunch, sweat stains under the arms of his khaki shirt and a habit of chewing gum with his mouth open – all of which Dom Felipe Antunes, the Bishop of Presidente Vargas, found distasteful. But it was nothing in comparison to Dom Felipe's distaste for the helicopter.
The bishop glanced at his watch, wiped his sweaty palms on his silk cassock and resumed a death grip on the aluminum supports.
Forty-seven blessed minutes in the air. Forty-seven minutes.
"It won't be long now, Your Excellency."
Was that amusement in the man's voice? Was he enjoying himself? Did he think fear was funny?
On the floor beneath Dom Felipe's feet there was a thin (he was sure it was thin) window of Plexiglas. He tried to avoid looking down, but some perverse instinct kept drawing his eyes back to that dreadful hole in the floor. They were over the river now, sand bars protruding through chocolate colored foam. The sand looked as hard as the rock-strewn banks.
Did helicopters float?
A rowboat drifted in mid-river, two fishermen aboard, a huge net piled high between them. They looked up at him, shielding their eyes against the morning sun. One waved.
Reflexively, Dom Felipe waved back. Then a flash, like the strobe on a camera, caused him to snap his head upward and seek the source of the light.
Far ahead of him, beyond the bug-flecked windshield, the flash came again. He squinted and…yes, there it was. Sunlight of an almost blinding intensity reflected off an expanse of glass. It couldn't be anything other than the Great Window. And that meant that the brand-new church of Nossa Senhora dos Milagres was in sight.
The window was almost five meters in diameter and had come all the way from the Venetian island of Murano at a cost of almost two hundred thousand Reais, not including the shipping, which, together with the insurance, had amounted to thirty thousand more. When the sun hit it just right – as it was doing now – the Window would cast rays of glorious blue light all along the nave of the new church.
Dom Felipe made a conscious effort to hold that image, focusing on the blue light, as if it were a meditation. But then the pitch of the engine changed, dragging him back into his dreadful reality.
The Lord is my shepherd…
A landing spot had been marked out: A Christian cross in stones the size of golf balls, and just as white. A rectangle of sere grass surrounded it, hemmed by dusty palm trees. Yellow plastic tape ran from tree to tree, holding back the crowd. Men in the gray uniforms of the State Police were stationed at intervals along the length of the tape, their backs to the cross, keeping the landing area clear.
If you want a sample of the writing (the entire first chapter), go to Gage's website – www.leightongage.com -, scroll down his home page and click on the link entitled "Read an Excerpt from Blood of the Wicked".
The book is available from online suppliers and from most bookstores in the United States.