Fear in Writing: Write Around the World: Leighton Gage on Brazil

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Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Write Around the World: Leighton Gage on Brazil

Today I welcome author Leighton Gage, who writes the Inspector Silva series.  I just finished Buried Strangers and highly recommend it.  In addition to some great characters, Silva also brings the reader into the country of Brazil--its favelas and extreme wealth, its Amazon rainforests and overpopulated Sao Paulo.  From Gage's writing and his posts on the blog Murder is Everywhere (one of my favorites), I have learned what a multi-faceted country Brazil is.  For his own take on the South American gem, here is Leighton Gage...

I’m a Brazil nut, in love with just about everything in this country.

Check that.
I’m not in love with the traffic in São Paulo.
I’m not in love with the crime, the pollution, the inequitable income distribution, the corruption, the…
Hmm. Okay, maybe just about everything was a bit of an exaggeration. Brazil isn’t paradise.
But Brazil’s flaws do have one benefit, at least to me: they add spice, and a touch of the exotic, to my crime novels.

My friend, and fellow blogmate, Yrsa Sigurdardöttir writes delightful mysteries set in her native Iceland. I often wonder how she does it. The population of her country is only (get this) about 320,000 people. (Betcha most of you didn’t know that.) That’s less than two percent of the population of the city in which I live.

Yrsa tells me (I admit to having visited Iceland only once) that there isn’t a great deal of ecological or cultural diversity; that the society is relatively egalitarian; that murders, by and large, are confined to banal incidents like family members getting involved in drunken brawls and taking blunt instruments to each other. Fortunately, Yrsa has a rich and fertile imagination. Time after time, she comes up with brilliant content. And most of it comes from inside her head.

I don’t have to think things up. They’re happening all around me.
The total population of this country is in excess of two-hundred million.
Brazil covers more than eight million square kilometers.
That makes it about eighty times the size of Iceland with five hundred times the population.
And, each year, we experience tens of thousands of times the number of major crimes.
How’s that for a surfeit of inspiration?

Ecological and cultural diversity?
We’ve got steamy jungles in the north, winter snowfalls in the south, more species of fish swimming in the Amazon River than in all of the Atlantic Ocean.

This is an Amazonian freshwater dolphin. We call it a Boto. And, yes, it is pink.
The city of São Paulo boasts more Lebanese than in Beirut, more Portuguese than in Lisbon, more ethnic Japanese than all but two cities in the home islands.

That’s ecological and cultural diversity incarnate.
Anything but.
Some people think this is a poor country.
It isn’t.
Brazil is a rich country with a lot of poor people.
Our GNP is greater than that of the next six countries in South America combined.
We’re the world’s largest exporter of soybeans and beef.
We’re independent in terms of petroleum and natural gas.
We have nuclear power plants, largely a matter of national pride, or shame, depending on how you look at it, because we have enough rivers to generate all of the hydroelectric power we’ll ever need. (Twenty percent of all of the world’s fresh water flows through just one of them – the Amazon.)
We have restaurants, and shops, on a par with any in Paris or New York.

And you know that traffic problem I mentioned?
The wealthier folks in São Paulo get around it by flying over it, in the largest fleet of helicopters in the world outside of the United States. (All of them domestically produced.)
Brazil has an automobile industry and an aerospace industry.
If you live in the U.S. or Europe, and drive a Volkswagen or a Fiat, there’s a good chance that the engine was constructed in Brazil. If you are a frequent flyer, one who visits smaller airports, the odds are you have flown in a Brazilian aircraft, and if pick up a telephone to call Brazil, you’re going to be speaking via a Brazilian satellite.
Poor country? My patootie!

Brazil’s social problems, including the high crime rates, stem not from a lack of income, but rather from an inequitable system of income distribution. Only two countries in the Western hemisphere do a worse job of it: Haiti and Bolivia.

Day by day, the rich get richer. And the poor – react.

A law-school colleague of my brother-in-law heads the murder squad in the city of São Paulo. He has seven-hundred-and-fifty investigators in his department. And he is understaffed.

The number of policemen murdered, each year, in Rio de Janeiro alone, exceeds the number killed in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom combined.

Seventy-percent of all crimes remain unsolved. And, because of a corrupt judicial system, only one felon in ten serves out his/her sentence.

Against all of this, I have set my protagonists.
They’re members of the Brazilian Federal Police, the least corrupt of Brazil’s law enforcement bodies.
But, since the system itself is corrupt, they often have to achieve justice by breaking the law.
(How’s that for a twist?)

They have a national mandate, so I get to take my readers all over the country.

In Brazil, there is no Secret Service, no Customs and Immigration Service, no Drug Enforcement Administration and no Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Those functions, and more, are assigned to the “feds”, which is good for me, because it means I can involve my guys with every conceivable kind of crime, some of which, like the ongoing land wars, are unique to this society.

I’m going to be watching this space closely, in the next few days, to see which one of Michele’s guests makes a better case for a place for a crime writer to live.

Well…uhhh…maybe not live, exactly.
But, most assuredly, write.

Thanks, Michele, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to Write Around the World Week.

Thank you, Leighton!  If I hadn't wanted to visit Brazil already, I would definitely be curious after this post.  Gage's latest book, Every Bitter Thing, will be released in December.  (That gives you a little more than a month to get caught up on Inspector Silva and his crew!)  Again, check out Mr. Gage on his website or the blog, Murder is Everwhere--a stage he shares with five other authors who write books set on almost every continent. 

Tomorrow: Debbie Cowans on living and writing the Kiwi way!

**All pictures in post provided by Leighton Gage.


  1. What a fascinating country--with both good points and challenges like any interesting place. Thanks so much for giving us a deeper look at Brazil--I'm looking forward to reading your books. Best of luck with your upcoming release.

  2. Thank you Leighton for an awesome post. Reading about Sao Paulo, was like reading about Bombay- the inequitable distribution of wealth, the traffic, etc.
    The strangest thing I found when I was in SP a few years back was that Bombay and SP are two nearly identical cities when it comes to throwing economic disparity on your face, yet crime as you know it in SP is almost completely missing in Bombay. We kicked around many theories, but have never come up with one that adequately explains it.

    And traffic in SP is much better than in Bombay- you guys can speed at times.

  3. Really enjoyed this post, since I know (or knew) little about Brazil. I certainly learned more today than I did in college!

  4. Elizabeth- The books really do bring one into the country of Brazil, faults and all.

    Rayna- Very interesting comparison of the two cities! I hadn't thought to compare anything other than the poverty. And one assumes crime comes with that...I always learn from your comments!

  5. Michele - Thanks for hosting Leighton.

    Leighton - Your post took me right back to my own trip to Brazil when I was young. It is a beautiful, dangerous, fascinating, exotic, seductive and scary place. As you say, there are things not to like about it, but Brazil got into my blood when I was there. Still haven't gotten it out.

    And I can certainly see how it's the perfect place for a crime series to take place. So many interesting people, so many places (and very different places, too) and so much diversity. I love it!!

  6. Leighton, what a fascinating post. I learned a great deal about Brazil today and see how it could be a great setting for murder mysteries. Best of luck.

    Michele, thanks for hosting Leighton and for this interesting look at the world and some of its great writers.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Sounds a lot like Mexico. Many police get killed here as well. You couldn't pay me a million dollars to be a cop.

    I was told recently that in a border town a twenty-year-old female was made chief of police because no one else applied for the elected job. I would never do the job because either you're corrupt or dead.

    Great post. Learned a lot about Brazil. Would love to see a Boto some day.


  8. I've been to Iceland (and liked it), but never to Brazil. My company has an office in Rio, so maybe I should try to get a transfer. To me Brazil is first and foremost great soccer players >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  9. Helen- It's definitely a place I want to visit!

    Margot- Diversity is certainly an interesting element in mystery writing...And I agree, Brazil seems like the perfect backdrop!

    Mason- Blogging makes the world smaller, but it doesn't make us any more alike (thought I suppose that could be argued...and has been). I've learned just as much as all of you with this series!

    Clarissa- We hear waaaaaay to many stories of death in Mexico--of police or by police, it seems. Your post was great on Wednesday, thank you!

    Cold- Soccer, yes! Someone had to mention that. I don't know if Leighton has been to Norway (isn't that where you live?), but he says he has some crazy stories from his times in Finland! I would imagine the change in climate would be dramatic for you if you moved to Brazil. :)

  10. Elizabeth, I hope you enjoy the books as much as you did the post. Dare I say even more? About the new release: over the past week it has collected excellent reviews from three of the four big trade publications, Booklist, Publisher's Weekly and the much-dreaded Kirkus Reviews. Now, all I need is Library Journal to sweep the board.

    Rayna, you are, of course, spot-on with your comments about Mumbai. Years ago, when the traffic in SP was much better than it is now, I was sitting in a cab with a friend of mine from Bombay (as it was called back then). We hadn't moved ten meters in ten minutes, and I apologized to him about the traffic. "Are you kidding?" he said. "Bombay is much worse."
    Sometime later, I visited Bombay for the first time. And he was right. It was worse. But not anymore.
    I, too, have wondered about the crime thing. Could it be that the belief in karma acts as a social control? That people don't want to be reborn down the scale so they avoid anything that might cause that to happen? Whatever the reason, I really do feel a lot safer in Mumbai than I do in São Paulo.

    Helen, I didn't even know they mentioned Brazil in American colleges. And my lack-of-knowledge about this place was astounding when I got here. I'm glad I was able to contribute a little to your knowledge bank.

    Margot, how true it is that this place gets into your blood. For all of the country's faults, I have known few foreigners who, after learning the language, and meeting the people, fail to fall in love with Brazil. And miss it when they go. If they ever do. I'm a case in point. I was supposed to stay for two years. Ha!

    Mason, thank you for your kind words. They're much appreciated.

    Clarissa, I hope you DO get a chance to see a Boto. A little story: In a former life, I used to make documentaries. We were flying over an isolated part of what is now the State of Tocantins in a small helicopter. We spotted an isolated village along a river, no access at all by road. We decided to land and have a look around. The people had never been so close to a helicopter, and we took a few of them up just for fun. In turn, they led us down to the river and showed us the local boto. A kid stood on the bank and clapped. And, the next thing we knew, this pink head popped out of the water, and there she was, this wild creature they'd trained to come when they called. Fascinating!

    Cold, please do not mention football (soccer) to me. We are still reeling after our defeat in the World Cup this year. On the other hand, the next one (2014) will be held in Brazil. So you're going to be seeing a lot of the country on TV - wherever you live. My release for 2011, by the way, deals with the kidnapping of the mother of a soccer star just before the World Cup. This has become somewhat of a cottage industry here. Three such mothers of the 2010 Brazilian first eleven were sequestered and held for ransom.
    The book is entitled A Vine in the Blood. And I finished it three months ago. It won't be on sale until December of 2011 at the earliest, though. The American publishing industry moves with the stately pace of a pachyderm.

  11. Good post. Wow, I learned a lot! Thanks to both of you for sharing this.
    Have a good weekend,

  12. Thanks for the fantastic post. Brazil sounds fascinating - both as a place to live and a place to write about. The extremes and inequalities sound like a rich and powerful backdrop for a crime novel.

    These posts certainly are firing up my desire to visit all these fascinating places. :-)

  13. Wow! Such a fascinating place! Your line about the rich getting richer and the poor reacting is so true. So sad.

  14. Such a very intriguing post! I knew so little about the area, and I can see where it would be a hot bed for crime writing ideas. More cops murdered in Rio than N American and the UK combined?! Very eye-opening to say the least.

    Thanks for the wonderful post, Leighton and Michele. More than anything else in the country, I want to see the river dolphins. :o)

  15. Jackee,
    Yes, the Boto is a sight.
    But there are many other things to see as well.
    If you go drop into our blog

    Murder Is Everywhere

    and scroll to the bottom of the home page, it will bring you to an index. You might find the posts entitled "Amazon", "Churches" and "Ectourism" interesting. And, if you type "Confederates in Brazil" into the search function, I think you'll find that interesting as well.
    And maybe "Percy Fawcett". It deals with his death and the new film in which he'll be played by Brad Pitt.

  16. I am working my way backwards through the "around the world" posts, and I just wanted to say again - what an awesome idea, Michelle! I absolutely love learning about these places, and the bloggers you've picked made such a great job of giving us a peek into their world. Wonderful!

    Now I'm dying to visit Brazil - though I think I'd like to avoid rush hour if that traffic knot is anything to go by...

  17. anyone can tell me sie of police federal badge from Brasil?
    Please, respond to insigpo@insigpol.com

    Thank s in advance