Monday, February 09, 2009

Leighton Gage's Return to Velma Teague

Leighton Gage was one of the first authors to appear at the Velma Teague Library for the Authors @ The Teague series, when he spoke last January about his first Mario Silva mystery, Blood of the Wicked. On February 8, he returned to talk about Brazil, the setting of his books, and the second title, Buried Strangers.

Gage started the program by saying if you stood on the upper floor of an office building in São Paulo looking out the window, there would be a smudge in the distance. That smudge is a mountain range, covered by jungle. The jungle is so intense that a small plane went down there in 1956. People knew where it went down, searched for it, and it still took over thirty years to find the plane.

So, if you were a serial killer, and had the typical problem of a serial killer, where do I put the bodies, you couldn't pick a better place than that jungle. In Buried Strangers, the second book in the Mario Silva series, bodies are found in the jungle, in the Serra de Cantareira.

Blood of the Wicked, the first book in the series, deals with land wars, that are still going on in Brazil. It also deals with Liberation theology. Gage said very few people outside of Brazil know about these issues, so his intention is to entertain and inform.

He commented that facts about Brazil are not well known in the United States. It's a country larger than the continental U.S. It has 185 million people, and the eighth largest economy in the world. It's a very rich country with large numbers of poor people. It's also the fourth most corrupt country in the world, following two African countries and Guatemala, all much smaller than Brazil. The corruption has invaded the police and the judicial system. No one is arrested for 70% of the crimes. Of the 30% prosecuted, only 1 in 10 ever serve time. It's a country of violent crime. Fifty thousand people are murdered there per year.

The man who told Gage about the explosion of murders is one of two cops in São Paulo who are the basis for the cops in the books. Gage's books have three main characters; Mario Silva, the old wise fox, his nephew, Hector Costa, and Silva's sidekick, Amaldo Nunes. Gage made them Federal police so they can move around the country, and be involved in different types of crimes. Blood of the Wicked is set in the countryside. Buried Strangers is set in Brazil's largest city, São Paulo, and the third book, Dying Gasp, will be set in the Amazon region.

Dying Gasp will be out from Soho Press next January. That book deals with the problem of prostitution of young children. Europeans take sex tours to Brazil's northern cities to have sex with young girls. There are tours from Germany and Holland. Thailand used to be the center of sex tourism, but, now it's northern Brazil.

The Federal police is the force that police the ordinary police of the country. A few years ago, there were 126 police arrested for corruption. An honest cop is hard to find. The Federal police receive decent wages, but the local police can't make a living wage.

Leighton Gage said he tries to bring the cross-cultural nature of Brazil to his books. There is a town there called Americana. It was settled by immigrants from the United States after the Civil War. Pedro II needed people to work in the cotton industry, so he sent agents to the U.S., where they approached southern plantation owners, who moved their entire families because they knew how to work with slaves. There is even a Confederate monument there, listing names of officers and soldiers from the Confederacy.

Along with the North American influence, there is a strong European one. The Germans had a colony there prior to WWII. The SS even sent expeditions to Brazil.

There are presently 600,000 Brazilian Indians, but it's estimated that 40,000 natives live in the jungle, and they've never had contact with civilization.

The biggest influence on Brazil was the slaves. There were 600,000 slaves in the U.S. There were more than 3 million slaves brought into Brazil. They also brought their religion, and that has been intermingled with the Catholic Church. The dance, martial arts, and music all influenced the country.

Upon request, Gage related some of the history of Brazil, beginning with Portuguese expeditions, and the Pope giving Brazil to the Portuguese. In 1500, they started to colonize. The country was originally named The Land of the Holy Cross, but there was a hard wood called brazil that made a fine sawdust. That sawdust made a pigment that added red color to oil paints, and it was used by Renaissance painters. The vast quantities of wood were sent to Europe for the red pigment, and the country began known as the Land of Brazil (wood), and then, Brazil.

The original capitol was in the north, where most of the slaves worked sugar cane fields. It was called Salvador. But, when John VI of Portugal escaped the continent after Napoleon invaded, he moved the capitol to Rio de Janeiro. He stayed for fifteen years, but returned to Portugal when his older son started agitating to take over the throne there. Once he was gone, his younger son declared the independence of Brazil, and declared himself Emperor.

São Paulo has even a greater mix of people. When slavery was eliminated in the late 1800s, they still needed people to do manual labor. They imported Japanese to do that. São Paulo has the third largest Japanese population in the world, after Tokyo and Osaka. There are also more Lebanese in São Paulo than in all of Lebanon.

Gage said his grandfather, who was a sea captain, said the three most beautiful cities to see by sea are Sidney, Cape Town, and Rio de Janeiro. Leighton agreed, and said, the most beautiful is Rio.

But, Brazil does have a high crime rate. It's the biggest city in the world for armored vehicles. The wealthy move into armed communities, behind high walls, with gates and security. They're safe in there. It's the same in most major cities.

Gage's Chief Inspector Mario Silva mysteries bring the rich history and culture of Brazil to life, so it was appropriate that he end his discussion of Brazil answering questions about the people and the food. He said Brazilians are the nicest people in the world, warm, and they know how to have a good time. Their food reflects their appreciation of their past. Although they are big meat eaters, the national food is a bean dish, that descended from slave food. Cane spirits, made from fresh sugar cane juice is the drink.

It was a treat to welcome Leighton Gage back to Velma Teague. His books, filled with grit and crime, are lessons in Brazilian life.

Leighton Gage's website is

Buried Strangers by Leighton Gage. Soho Press, ©2009. ISBN 978-1-56947-514-0 (hardcover), 320p.


Anonymous said...

Most interesting, Lesa. Thanks for sharing. I have both these books here to read, hopefully, this year. I look forward to reading these mysteries set in a culture that is not familiar. I have a Brazilian coworker and so know a bit about some of the things he mentioned.

Lesa said...

And, you do need to read both books, Kay, because the second one is even better than the first. It's fascinating to read about this country that I no so little about.

Janet Rudolph said...

Thanks, Lesa, for this great summary of the evening with Leighton Gage. He'll be coming to an At Home this week in Berkeley, and I'm looking forward to meeting him and hearing him talk. I had a Fulbright to Brazil, and he's right. Most people are unfamiliar with the country, the real country of Brazil.

Lesa said...

Oh, Janet. You're going to love Leighton and his wife. And, you're going going to appreciate his comments about Brazil even more than most of us do. I find it fascinating because I know so little about the county. You'll probably find it fascinating because you do.

I wish I lived close enough to come to one of your At Homes. They sound so warm, and fun.