Chief Inspector Mario Silva, the Brazilian police detective featured in a series of hard-hitting, atmospheric procedural novels by Leighton Gage, is known as “the sharpest criminal investigator in [the] country.” He has an unquestioned reputation for honesty and integrity. But as a paragon of incorruptible virtue, Silva is in the minority. “With a few exceptions, like yourself,” a convicted kidnapper tells the inspector in the latest (and fifth) Silva installment, “A Vine in the Blood” (Soho, 289 pages, $24), “this country has the best justice system money can buy.”
Silva works for the federal police in the country’s capital, Brasilia. Given the national mandate of this supra-agency (roughly, a combined equivalent of the FBI, DEA and Secret Service), the inspector investigates cases in cities and regions all over his massive, disparate country—often encountering civil-police and judicial “colleagues” as criminal as the villains they’re supposed to pursue.
Silva’s credit-taking boss, Nelson Sampaio, hampers his effectiveness in different ways. A former corporate lawyer and a political appointee with no background in police work, Sampaio sees his job as a mere stepping stone to the country’s presidency. His priorities are to placate influential citizens and officials who demand special attention and to preserve Brazil’s global image. (“Did I mention,” he says at one point, “that the Pope called the President?”)
The latest book’s title comes from the bible (“Thy mother is like a vine in thy blood”) and is emblematic of Silva’s avenging-angel aspect. In “A Vine in the Blood,” the mother of star soccer player Tico Santos is kidnapped on the eve of the World Cup—a crime of national import in soccer-mad Brazil. “With Tico in form, his team was expected to go on to glory. With Tico depressed and worried about the fate of his mother, Brazil ran a grave risk of suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the country’s most bitter rival—Argentina.” In trying to find Tico’s mother, Silva encounters lottery kingpins, a former death-squad-soldier-turned-professional-assassin and other crooks dazzled by visions of ill-gotten wealth.
Silva’s obsession, however, is with personally serving justice upon the most loathsome miscreants he encounters. Despite being hobbled by his superior and by corrupt civil servants in a country where federal police have no mandate to investigate murders unless they occur on government property, he improvises ways of dispensing extra-legal punishment.
We know a good deal about Silva’s outlook on life from other books in the series, each of them accomplished and each adding layers to Silva’s personal history and private quest. Behind his actions is a personal trauma, revealed in one short, awful chapter of 2008’s “Blood of the Wicked” (Soho, 324 pages, $13), the first Silva novel. In 1978, in São Paulo (“one of the major murder capitals of the world”), young Silva is setting up a law practice when his doctor-father is killed and his 53-year-old mother raped by a pair of street thugs. The city police are unable or unwilling to pursue the attackers, and Silva’s distraught mother kills herself. “Silva laid her to rest in the family crypt, ” Mr. Gage writes, “turned his back on a legal career, and joined the Federal Police.”
In time, Silva finds both of his parents’ attackers and makes sure they meet appropriate fates, but his travails continue. He marries when he joins the police force; he and his wife have a son; the child dies from leukemia. Silva’s wife, to whom he remains faithful, has continued to live in an alcoholic haze in the two decades since. “Nothing,” we learn, “affected Silva so much as the murder of children.”
Each of the Silva books stems from a single incident that leads to the uncovering of a wider social evil. “Blood of the Wicked” begins with the assassination of a Catholic bishop in front of a church that he is about to consecrate, an act that spurs Silva to explore illegal land-use policies in the rural reaches of a remote province. “Buried Strangers” (Soho, 305 pages, $13), the second mystery in the series, starts with the discovery of the remains of a body buried in a field in São Paulo. Soon a secret cemetery, containing the corpses of entire families, is revealed. In time Silva exposes a ghastly racket that exploits the vulnerable working poor.
In the third series book, “Dying Gasp” (Soho, 290 pages, $14), the disappearance of the granddaughter of a prominent citizen in the city of Recife points Silva to a child-prostitution market. And the fourth, “Every Bitter Thing” (Soho, 280 pages, $14), begins with the scandalous-seeming death of the Venezuelan foreign minister’s son, which is followed by a series of similar serial-killer murders. But the book concludes with incidents involving “the PCC, the country’s largest and most dangerous criminal enterprise.”
The books all contain three layers of plot: the specific case at hand; the inspector’s own emotional pilgrimage (an existential subtext of the novel’s plot); and, finally, a catalog of the corruption extending through all levels of society, threatening the lives and fortunes of everyone from soccer stars to kitchen maids to a federal judge forced by death threats to live as a prisoner in his own courthouse.
Despite their social conscience and ambitious reach, there’s nothing stiff or programmatic about Mr. Gage’s lively, action-filled chronicles. They have finely sketched characters, vivid geographical detail and their own brutal sort of humor. (“He must have his hands full,” one citizen comments of Venezuela’s foreign minister, “what with that idiot running his country.”) The vast size of Brazil, with its great economic and topographic differences, affords a diversity of locales. Each book is a bit of adventure-travel, with Silva and crew often feeling like tourists within their own country. Yet the Silva investigations have all the step-by-step excitement of a world-class procedural series.
The books’ greatest appeal, though, is Silva. Even after five books and many glimpses into his past and present, he remains an enigma. The reader never knows what the detective might or might not do in order to balance the scales of justice.