The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

November 28, 2010


The son of a high-ranking Venezuelan politician has been found dead, shot in the abdomen and brutally beaten, in an apartment in Brasilia. Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Federal Police is called to investigate, and the pressure is on to bring the case to a quick resolution: Find the killer and keep the baying politicians at, well, bay. But Silva is too wily a politician himself, and too good a detective, to allow the pressure to get to him. A good thing, too. Within 24 hours Silva has found the same MO used in four other murders, each occurring in a different city. The only link between the victims is that each was aboard Flight 8101, Miami to São Paulo, on the same day four months earlier. Then Silva discovers two more victims, one killed using the same MO as the others but who was not on that flight; and a 15-year-old boy who was on the flight but died of a head injury in a jail cell within hours of his arrival in Brazil. Silva and his team of detectives have their hands full collecting evidence and testimony from all over Brazil and Miami, as well as warning possible future victims. But the killer isn't waiting around for them to do their jobs. The killer keeps killing.

I confess to being a tad fussy about crime fiction whose locales are non-Anglo countries. It isn't that I won't read such books -- I love Roger Smith's books set in South Africa, and Arnaldur Indridason's Icelandic mysteries, and so on -- but only that I often find an author will drench the reader in this other culture and land at the expense of story and characterization. A reader can spend more time trying to adjust to cultural nuances and sorting out names and locations than in simply enjoying a good story.

I'm happy to report this is not the case with Every Bitter Thing, by Leighton Gage. And yet Brazil is not simply an incidental setting; the reader will still enjoy a good taste of the Brazilian landscape and culture. But Gage weaves these things into his mystery so that they are truly a part of the story's fabric, all of it necessary, intriguing, and sometimes funny.

Told in third person, with limited subjectivity, what the reader learns about Silva and his team is only what is displayed on the job. We are not treated to their home lives and personal woes except insofar as they are referred to on the job. The team is just that, a team. They have a camaraderie born of experience and a mutual desire to get the job done, and done right. Honorable and upright, they disdain the corruption, laziness, and brutality they see throughout much of law enforcement. The team is: Arnaldo Nunes, a smart-ass of the first degree; nimble of wit but not an infallible interrogator. Haraldo 'Babyface' Gonçalves, he's thirty years old and looks a sweet and innocent twenty. Women tell him everything, but he's probably the most superstitious cop in the country. Hector Costa, Silva's nephew and a rising star in law enforcement, Hector heads up the Federal field office in São Paulo. And Silva himself, unflappable, far-sighted, and possessing the intangibles that make for great leadership, including a good sense of humor.

In some ways the story structure put me in mind of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories, as Gage rarely strays into the private lives of his cops, and yet makes fully-fleshed characters of each of them. The dialogue is snappy but not just for the sake of it. The snappiness is a result of the team's experience with each other and with other cops and citizens, and the dialogue either moves the plot forward or reveals something about the character speaking. Gage never becomes overly graphic or too lovingly dwells on the violence, nor does he involve the reader in tedious forensic explanations. The pace is quick, the atmosphere slightly hardboiled but leavened with cop humor. The reader may guess the killer's identity mid-way through the book but that won't make the team's procedural search any less entertaining, and the epilogue has such an eyebrow-raising twist that the reader is forced to stop, say 'whoa,' and completely reevaluate Silva and his team. I enjoyed this book so much that I've started back at the beginning of the series, and now have only one more title to read. I'm going to hate waiting another year or more for another book from Gage.

In the following excerpt, Silva and Arnaldo Nunes have arrived at the scene of the first murder. A civil cop, homicide detective Walter Pereira, is to fill them in on what the police have found so far but Pereira wants to talk about Silva's incompetent boss, Sampaio:
"What's with you," Arnaldo asked.

"Your goddamned boss is what's with me," Pereira said. "He's doing his dog and pony show as we speak. There's a television in one of the bedrooms. Want to have a look?"

"Not on your life," Arnaldo said.

Silva bent over to look at the damage to the apartment's front door.

"Perp did this?" he asked.

Pereira shook his head. "We did."

Silva studied the floor. A trail of blood stained the carpet.

"Let's not get off the subject," Pereira said. "Your goddamned boss–"

Silva waved a dismissive hand. "You don't have to tell me, Walter. I work with the man."

"The way I heard it, the filho da puta doesn't work at all. The way I heard it, you guys do all the work, and he takes the credit. He is, by the way, currently positioning himself to do just that. He's live on Channel Five."

"Of course he is," Arnaldo said. "His public demands it."

"His public doesn't know shit. They think the blowhard is a twenty-first-century Eliot Ness. What kind of a background does Sampaio have in law enforcement anyway?"

"None whatever," Silva said. "He was a corporate lawyer. He made a substantial contribution to the president's election campaign. The rest, as they say, is history."

"Watcha got?" Arnaldo asked.

"Just answer me this: is he, or is he not, a filho da puta?"

"He's a filho da puta of monumental proportions," Arnaldo said. "Watcha got?"

Pereira finally broke into a grin. The teeth under his mustache were movie-star white.

"I got it solved, is what I got," he said.

ISBN 978-1-56947-845-5
Publication date: December, 2010
Soho Press

One more note: Leighton Gage is a regular contributor to the Murder Is Everywhere blog. His co-contributors include Timothy Hallinan, Cara Black, Dan Waddell, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, and the writing team of Michael Sears and Stan Trollip, aka Michael Stanley.

November 18, 2010

Review: BURY ME DEEP by Megan Abbott

Marion Seeley is an innocent in a strange city. At first sheltered, then abandoned by her older, physician husband, and struggling to find her way in a Depression-era world wholly unlike anything she's ever experienced, she makes two good friends: Louise and Ginny. Through these women, the parties they hold, the corrupt and faithless men they entertain, Marion meets and falls hard for Joe Lanigan, a businessman and rising politico who charms all, high and low, men and women. But there's more to Joe than hair pomade, a flawless tuxedo, and an invalid wife; and he slowly wraps the trusting Marion in a web of drugs, deceit and murder.

Much of the publicity around this book has to do with the Winnie Ruth Judd case as its inspiration. That seems to do a slight disservice to the book, as though without that knowledge the reader might not appreciate the story. Au contraire, the reader need have no knowledge of the Judd case to enjoy this fine tale and its deft prose. The author reveals the passion, fear, jealousy, and rage of true noir but paints her characters and their motives with the delicate flicker of an eyelash. Revelations occur between the lines as tension mounts and finally bursts into betrayal and violence. Just read how the author paints both isolation and desire in brief depth:
At work again, walking down long clinic hallways, spinning carbon paper and willowy onionskin around the feed roll, jamming keys under fingernails, taking long dictations, crying in the ladies' room, tearing tissue into long curls around her fingers.

What glamour might I cast, she wondered, to embed needs under this man's skin, make him crave me so deep like the deepness of something that goes through the blood, goes through the blood and bursts soft or swells hard in the brain?
A thread running through the story is disease: the clinic where Marion works, the tubercular Ginny, the invalid wife, the drug-addicted husband. And also the diseased souls, most notably Lanigan's but also many of the men with whom the women come in contact: doctors, businessmen, politicians; not riff-raff or lowlifes, but respectable types whose sicknesses are hidden and treated with money and power, all the while they act as carriers of contagion and corruption. This might be a description of the clinic, or it might be a description of Joe Lanigan:
She said hello, Mr. Lanigan, and nearly curtsied, seeing him as she had, three days before, under a sugared skein of girl-pink champagne, under the heavy weight of parlor heat, thick on their skins, thick with their own energies, own high spirits. And now here like this, in the cool, bleachy hallways of the blasted-brick clinic, didn't it look so innoculated? Yet it was a pox, vermin in every sweating pore, sputum lining every crevice no matter how swabbed and brush-scoured it was.
The best noir is more than simply crime or mystery. It is a pulling back of the veil covering dark emotions and twisted spirits. Bury Me Deep is the most impressive work of pure noir I've read since James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, and is just as dark, sexy, and riveting as that classic.