Brazilian Psycho by Joe Thomas

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Brazilian Psycho by Joe Thomas front cover

Brazilian Psycho completes Joe Thomas’s São Paulo quartet, bookending the first three mysteries in the series and unifying the piece. The story dives into the underbelly of the city that is the financial heart of Brazil’s economy. It’s a place where the business and political corridors are grimier than the darkest criminal corners of the favelas. Thomas reprises the story of São Paulo first seen in his 2016 novel Paradise City. He has explored the city from different angles throughout the series. The fully realised landscape is corrupt, chaotic and violent. Brazilian Psycho runs from 2003 to 2019, from the election of a radical but crooked left wing government to the succession of Jair Bolsonaro an incompetent right wing demagogue in 2018.

That’s where the novel opens, on the eve of Bolsonaro’s election victory in 2018. The Bixiga Boys street gang are wired and tense. Their leader, Beto, spots a target – a flash-looking young man. He signals the others and they pile in. The EleNão T-Shirt, standing for anyone but Bolsonaro, marks the victim out. It riles Beto because Bolsonaro, the ex-military hardman, is his hero, the true Brazilian Psycho. Bolsonaro hates gays and liberals and Beto takes that as license to act. By the time the gang have finished the young man is dead. The callous and brutal attack goes unpunished. The same night we meet military policeman Junior. Bolsonaro will let his force take back the streets, not just from the gangs but from legitimate political protestors too – they will crush them. Junior’s colleagues arrest a young woman for defacing a wall with the statement ‘EleNão’. When Junior reaches the police station they have her in a cell. It will be the longest, darkest night of her life.

Then back to 2003. Newly appointed detective Mario Leme, not yet a crusader, is sent to the British International School where the headmaster has been murdered. This school caters for the children of the rich and famous so the murder has to be handled carefully. His superiors want a quick result. They are ready to label the crime as a burglary gone wrong. However, one glance at the crime scene confirms this is not the work of a street thug, nor any kind of thief. There has been one blow to the head and the victim’s wallet is still on the dressing table. Something else is behind this. The superintendent warns Leme there is no glory to be had in solving this case…

Also in 2003 we meet Ray, ex-CIA and now a freelance fixer. He’s about to fly out of Miami. He needs somewhere to conduct untraceable business, somewhere with the potential for growth, somewhere huge sums money can be washed without any questions. São Paulo. These and other strands of the story coalesce over the next 16 years in the narrative.

Mario Leme, an honest cop, tries not to fall foul of the military police but there are always politics and corruption in policing. He does his best to bring justice to a jaded world, while the military police act with impunity and extreme violence, including extra-judicial murder. Those who support the left wing government are increasingly beset by dark forces favouring dictatorship and authoritarianism, qualities Bolsonaro embodies. Street disorder and protest play into the hands of gangsters, politicians and money men. Each novel in this series works as a standalone but the enveloping and inter-weaving of the nuanced stories in Brazilian Psycho reveals more of the nature of modern São Paulo society from rich to poor, powerful to powerless, honest to criminal. Brazilian Psycho confirms Thomas as an innovative and morally complex writer.  

Fans of David Peace will recognise his stylistic influence on Thomas. Pared back prose and brief glimpses of story that we as readers paint a picture around using our imaginations. Over the four novels Thomas has moved from fictional storytelling to a greater emphasis on real people and events. Thomas taught at a foreign school in São Paulo where a headmaster had been murdered and the Park Maniac killer in Brazilian Pscyho is a real serial killer whose story still haunts the city. The protests and political shenanigans, incredible as they seem, are very real. Brazilian Psycho eschews glamourising crime – this is an uncomfortable read because it echoes the corruption and cruelty of modern Brazilian society. Devastatingly powerful and compelling.

If this sounds interesting try Gringa and Playboy by Joe Thomas, or see our article on the Dark Heart of Brazil with Dan Smith.

Arcadia Books

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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