São Paulo, 2013: a city at an extraordinary moment in its history. Mario Leme, a detective in the civil police, has developed a friendship with a young English investigative journalist, Ellie. When she goes to meet a contact in central São Paulo, Mario observes from the street as she walks into a building and doesn’t come out. Inside, he discovers the dead body of a young man he doesn’t recognise, and Ellie s phone lying on the floor.
Set during five days in the redevelopment of the centre of São Paulo in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup, Ellie’s disappearance links characters at every level of the social hierarchy, from the drug dealers and civil and military police to the political class she witnesses, and charts the feral brutality of urban breakdown…
This time last year I had the pleasure of reading Paradise City , Joe Thomas’ gritty debut, introducing us to mercurial Brazilian detective Mario Leme. Being both an intuitive and compelling read, I was more than keen to see what lay in store for Leme, and to become even further immersed in the impoverished locale of downtown Sao Paulo…
One of the stand out features of Thomas’ debut was his ardent attention to the social, financial and political spheres of Brazilian society, and by using the backdrop of the urban regeneration needed to host the World Cup, Gringa puts the corruption and neighbourhood cleansing into sharp focus. As happened in South Africa, the book particularly focuses on the destruction of a shanty area of Sao Paulo, dubbed Cracolandia, where developers, legal personnel, and politicians, run roughshod over the lives of the less fortunate, to achieve their vision. With his innate feel for the hardboiled, pared down style of prose, Thomas consistently unsettles the reader with his depiction of these greedy, and not entirely legal practices, and those who suffer in its aftermath. Fortunately though, this is counterbalanced by a series of murders connected to those involved in the area’s development, and the disappearance of a young female journalist eager for a scoop. I found the level of factual detail intertwined with the main ‘thriller’ plot absolutely fascinating, and felt my hackles rise on more than one occasion at the social injustice that the book centres on. The level of corrupt nefarious practices that Gringa exposes was a real eye opener, and I appreciated the way that Thomas consistently exposes the naked truth behind the power and oppression of the more vulnerable in society. It was both powerful and thought provoking.
The weighty social issues of the book, are more than balanced with the superb characterisation, which I felt was even more assured than in the first book. Detective Mario Leme in particular has achieved a certain level of settled equilibrium in his personal life, after the emotional trauma of losing his wife, but in the style of all good crime thrillers, his new investigation threatens to turn this swiftly on its head. I like the slightly morose air of Leme, who is one hundred percent one of the good guys, and his jocular partner Lisboa, who are set apart from their less reputable police colleagues. Leme reminds me strongly of a kind of world weary American detective, and his self questioning, but keen sense of morality, reflects this further. There is a consistent attention to all of Thomas’ characters, from bright eyed but singularly naïve journalist Ellie, to Fernando and Leandro, two eager young chaps embroiled in illegal practices relating to the slum clearance, and a host of other ne’er-do-wells who reek of violence and corruption.
With reference again to Thomas’s writing style, Leme’s and Lisboa’s interactions, along with all the dialogue in the book is sharp, snappy, and has a rhythmical fluidity consist with the sound and cadence of the Brazilian tongue. The book is punctuated with the Brazilian vernacular, some in the glossary at the back, some not, but with the flow of the prose you begin to take the meanings on by osmosis, and I have learnt some very choice Brazilian expressions of disgust or outrage that I’m sure will be valuable at some point! Joking aside though, I thought the structure and language of the book was perfect, and I loved those small episodic interludes of whipcracker paced streams of consciousness that punctuate the book. A great read for those who like their crime on the darker side of the tracks, and dare I say it, even better than the debut. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Arcadia Books for the ARC)