Written by Joe Thomas — Playboy is the third novel in the hardboiled São Paulo quartet featuring Mario Leme, a detective with Brazil’s civil police. It is set against the background of the corruption scandal that engulfed President Dilma Rousseff in 2016.
As there are calls for Rousseff’s impeachment, 100,000 people take to the streets in São Paulo to show their support. Leme is off duty, interested only in avoiding the crowds, but when an informant directs him to a public park, he discovers a body. The dead man is young, well dressed, apparently affluent but with nothing to identify him. Two military police show up and find Leme standing over the body and detain him.
The rival police forces have history, as do Leme and the military police officer in charge of the investigation. When Leme is released, he is determined to find out who the dead man is, who killed him, and who set him up.
Meanwhile, Roberta, a post-graduate working at an NGO, is wondering how she can reconcile her progressive views with her love for her playboy boyfriend who she hasn’t seen since they argued at the demo. She sets out to look for him. Ellie, the British investigative journalist who first crossed paths with Leme in Gringa, is investigating financial corruption and dreaming of home. When Leme draws on the expertise of one of his journalist informants, Leme and Ellie are brought back together.
The story in Playboy is told from a number of points of view, building up a strong portrait of São Paulo. The competing factions within the police, the world of the playboys, and poverty and street crime are all portrayed, along with the unique character of the city and its different districts.
There is not much exposition about the broader political context. Thomas does not condescend, he assumes you either have a general knowledge of Brazilian politics, or can pick it up. There are some pointers in Ellie’s articles, which appear throughout the book highlighting key themes.
Much of the story is told through the thoughts, reflections and memories of the characters, in particular Leme. He meditates on the nature of crime, on his experiences of grief and love, on the way everyone in the city is enmeshed in darkness and corruption. Whether you embrace it, fight it, or hide from it, there is no escape.
The anatomy of the city is laid bare in vivid prose. The language is rich, flavourful, full of the essence of the street, a cacophony of voices that somehow harmonise into the sound of a city. British and American street slang jostle against each other. Portuguese phrases weave the two together. It’s a reminder that Brazil’s cultural roots are in many different ethnicities.
From the food to the bars to the outdoor spaces, the fine distinctions in dress and speech and manner by which Brazilians know each other, the city’s dramatic architecture and the people who inhabit each district, the daily rhythms of the city are evoked.
The cover and the title might suggest a fast-paced action thriller but Playboy is more James Ellroy than Lee Child. This is dark, stylish noir, the story of a city, a culture, a political and financial system where corruption is endemic but the struggle to find meaning and beauty lives on.
For more on the Brazilian setting, read Dan Smith’s article on the Dark Heart of Brazil.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars