We’re fortunate to have Leighton Gage as our guest blogger this week. Leighton is the author of the popular Mario Silva crime series, set in Brazil, which Leighton has made his home. And his co-produced website, Murder is Everywhere, is one of the best of its genre.
One of the things I find most appealing about international crime fiction is its capacity to give me insights into societies that are radically different from my own. I reveled in Jim’s Snow Angels, not only because he told me a cracking good story, with believable characters, and a sympathetic protagonist, but also because he took me so far away from my day-to-day – and taught me things I never knew about Finland.
This is my day to day. São Paulo, Brazil.
And believe me, folks, it is radically different from Jim Thompson’s Helsinki.
In every way you can imagine.
Size, for one thing.
We’ve got about twenty million people in the greater metropolitan area, which makes us the largest city in the country – and also the largest in the southern hemisphere.
Many of those people are very rich.
Many more are very poor.
Unlike Helsinki, there isn’t really that much of a middle-class.
Here you see a favela, a shantytown, integrated right into the rest of the urban sprawl.
This is a shot taken from the rainforest that tops a mountain range called the Serra de Cantareira. The jungle is the foreground, the heart of the city off on the horizon, less than thirty kilometers away. A small plane on final approach to one of our airports went down in that jungle back in 1956. Everybody knew where it was – roughly. All they had to do was to draw a line from the end of the runway up into the rainforest and search for it.
Which they did.
But it wasn’t until 1984 that they found it.
The jungle up there is that impenetrable.
And yet so close by. You can clearly see the vast expanse of thick vegetation from the windows of any one of a number of skyscrapers on Avenida Paulista.
Leaving the city in the opposite direction from the Serra, a drive of eighty kilometers will take you down to the sea. I say “down” because São Paulo is situated at slightly above 800 meters of altitude, and the descent to the coast is worth doing for the spectacular views alone.
If, when you reach the coast, you turn left and follow the road it will take you around a bay, the Bahia de Ilha Grande. I’ve spent many happy hours sailing among its more than three hundred islands, many of which have pristine beaches, sparkling springs and beautiful waterfalls.
You probably know already that Brazil is big. But did you know that it’s larger than the continental United States?
One river alone, the Amazon, contains twenty percent of all of the fresh water in the world.
In that river swim more species of fish than in all of the Atlantic Ocean – as well as manatees and botos.
Oh, you don’t know what a boto is?
Well, here’s a picture of one. It’s a pink, freshwater porpoise, and it can be trained to come when you call.
But Brazil isn’t all sunshine and roses.
People think of us as a poor country.
That, at least, is not true.
Our GNP is greater than that of the next five countries in South America combined. We have an automobile industry, an aircraft industry and a computer industry. We launch satellites into space. We’re independent in terms of natural gas and petroleum. We have the largest fleet of private helicopters and the largest fleet of private jets outside of the United States. We are eighth among all the economies of the world.
But it is true that we have vast numbers of very poor people.
(The title of the cartoon says, “Poverty is diminishing in Brazil…”)
We rank seventh in the world on the United Nation’s index of inequality.
Our income distribution is worse than that of all of the other countries in the western hemisphere – except for Haiti and Bolivia.
But those countries have tiny populations in comparison to ours, which is currently approaching two hundred million.
The wealthy, of course, live very well indeed.
If I could walk you through the Santos Yacht Club’s installation at Angra dos Reis, where the hundred-footers are lined up one next to the other…
…or bring you to Daslu, the most luxurious shop in São Paulo, you’d be able to see what I mean.
So how do the rich get richer while the poor get poorer?
Feudalism, of course.
Two percent of the people own sixty percent of the land.
And have owned it, many of them, for four hundred years.
But corruption is also a factor.
Brazil, in a recent survey, was found to be the fourth most corrupt country in the world, after Benin, Kenya and Guatamala. By and large, the politicians are corrupt, the cops are corrupt, the judges are corrupt and so are most of the other public servants from tax collectors to building inspectors. Last year, in the Amazonian city of Manaus alone, the federals busted more than 120 local cops for crimes ranging from extortion to murder.
Countrywide there are fifty-thousand murders a year. Seventy percent of all crimes go unsolved and only one convicted felon in ten serves out his sentence.
A law school colleague of my brother-in-law used to run the murder squad for the city of São Paulo. He had 750 men and women on staff, investigating nothing but murders – and he was understaffed.
Here are a couple of popular expressions, freely translated from the Portuguese:
(On the justice system) “The rich don’t go to jail.”
(On politicians) “They’re all thieves.”
(On getting sold a bill of goods by the government) “Brazil is the country of the future – and it always has been.”
For a crime writer, this place is paradise.
Every day, the newspapers bring new grist to my literary mill.
And it’s that literary mill that’s bringing me to Jim’s home town.
Originally entitled Buried Strangers, my second book in the Chief Inspector Mario Silva series has now been miraculously Finlandized by Jan Erola and the good people at Helsinki Books. It’s the first of my Chief Inspector Mario Silva series to be published in Finnish.
It launches, with my presence, in Helsinki, at the end of September.
If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by.
Can’t make it? Then do the next-best-thing and visit our blog:
Where I, and five other authors of crime novels who set our stories outside of the United States, hold forth on our different countries.
Thank you, Leighton! I learned quite a few things from you, and I’m fairly confident this is the most visually stunning blog that will ever grace this site. Next week, look forward to my guest blogger, award winning and influencial journalist Russ Baker. Russ is in Helsinki at the moment. We met today and he told me about his book: Family of Secrets: the Bush Dynasty, the Powerful Forces That Put It in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America. I’m a skeptic by nature, but he made a believer out of me, and I think he’ll have the same effect on you.