Monday, March 3, 2014

The Ways of Evil Men

You have to work a bit to stay ahead of the Soho Crime Club offerings.  I finally got around to two of them while on vacation a week ago.  The at times-banal prose in Helene Tursten's The Fire Dance frustrated me as much as it did in Detective Inspector Huss did (the latest and first, respectively, in the Irene Huss series).  I tossed the book aside in a fit of irritation with the writing - or maybe just the translator, or even the publisher for letting such dreck through.

Next up was The Ways of Evil Men (Soho Crime, 2014), much touted by the good folks at Soho Crime, and accompanied by a sad letter noting the death of author Leighton Gage late last year.  This is the eighth book in his series featuring a Brazilian police inspector named Mario Silva who, as far as I can tell, is the Salvo Montalbano of Brazil.  Silva, Salvo, you know.  But he is, so they say, as complex as his Sicilian counterpart, and surrounded by a group of supporting detectives and forensics experts and coroners just as Salvo is, although they're not nearly as sharply and wonderfully satirically drawn.  I'm getting a lot of this from conjecture - as noted, this is the eighth and last in this series, and I generally dislike going out of order.  But you know, new year, new approach, say yes, all of that, so in I jumped.

Gage gets high marks on the Escape-O-Meter for immediately setting you down in the Amazon rainforest, with some Indians (which is what they are called in Brazil).  There are snakes here, and all manner of biting insects.  A father and son out hunting discover the rest of their tribe dead from poisoning.  The local do-gooder, Jade Calmon, who works for the Brazilian equivalent of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs finds the survivors, and is determined to get justice for this tribe which has so clearly been executed.  But this frontier town - hours from anywhere on dirt roads or via rustbucket planes - is under the thumb of a few local wealthy ranchers and loggers who despise the Indians, apparently not an uncommon sentiment in Brazil per the Author's Note at the end.  It is said that Gage writes with a strong social conscience, and certainly the residents of Azevedo symbolize some profound racism in Brazilian society.  Early on in the story, one of the landowners is found murdered, one of the surviving Indians is fingered for it, and things go downhill for the latter.  Jade calls in some favors and gets Silva and his team flown up from Brasilia to "Brazil's modern-day equivalent of the Wild West.  Life was cheap; violence, rife; ignorance and poverty, endemic."  (33)  No one is happy that the cops-from-away are there, least of all the locals, who have negative sympathy for the Indians, and designs on their valuable land.  It's all kind of sordid, there is even a corrupt and drunken priest involved, not to mention the requisite dirty cop and smooth lawyer.

The Ways of Evil Men is not high literature.  The writing is not the point, and the story here moves rapidly -  action, talk, more action, more talk.  There isn't much room for rumination or finely-wrought description. Few characters are developed very precisely, although they make their mark.  (Gage does provide a useful dramatis personae at the beginning, which is helpful in keeping the names straight.)  Yet in the course of all this activity, Gage makes a strong point about the lawlessness of such places, and the damage that modern society's relentless pursuit of progress does to the world, and to people.  This story is not just one of of environmental frontiers, but also about clashing cultures and even the bedroom battleground of of personal relationships as well.  Here is no Turnerian-democracy-creating frontier, rather it is an ugly and brutal decimation of people,  land, resources, and lives.

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