Saturday, September 27, 2008
Blood of the Wicked, by Leighton Gage
When I don't like a book, I look for the reasons why. Blood of the Wicked, by Leighton Gage, came highly recommeded by several sites on the web, including International Thriller Writers (thrillerwriters.org), as well written and effective. I suppose it's more thriller than noir, which could be part of the problem since I'm more interested in the latter. However, it's set in Brazil (increasing my interest) and not in Rio (the setting of the very excellent Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza novels, the newest of which is about to be published in English under the title Blackout), but in São Paulo state, mostly in a small town. But there's just too much going on in the book for any focus to emerge--too many priests, too many cops, too many landless peasants agitating against the evil landlords. Plus too much torture (the most graphic of which is directed toward women). The cover of the book calls it "A Chief Inspector Mario Silva Investigation," but although Gage spends considerable time supplying a back story for Silva, the Chief Inspector really has very little to do with the story or its resolution. We know all along who's perpetrating most of the violence, and so does Silva. The details resolved as the story comes to a close are lurid but not very enlightening concerning the novel's chief target, the disparity between rich and poor, landed and landless in Brazil. Perhaps I'm not being fair to Blood of the Wicked, it may be suffering by comparison to Arnaldur Indridason's Arctic Chill, which is still on my mind. Arctic Chill is focused, intense, and atmospheric. Blood of the Wicked is unfocused, diffuse, and full of local color about the setting without adding up (to me) to a vital portrait of the place. Blood of the Wicked is part of a growing subset of international mystery/thrillers, written by Americans who spend all or a good part of their time in a foreign country that is the setting of their books. One factor that differentiates some books in this sub-genre from "indigenous" crime novels (at least if you compare Blood of the Wicked to Arctic Chill) is that the former sometimes explain a lot that a "native" novelist doesn't have to. That's OK, even necessary for foreign readers maybe, but in a novel, it can distance the reader from the setting and the action (even from the characters). Arctic Chill thrusts readers into its atmosphere, and we have to navigate the place through the eyes of the participants, reading between the lines and piecing together a portrait of Iceland. Gage gives readers a lot of information but we don't have to do any "investigation" of our own to piece together the scene--so we're not implicated in it ourselves, we're watching it like a movie or a TV show. Does that make sense? I could compare Blood of the Wicked to Garcia-Roza's books in the same way--although that Brazilian author does give the reader lots of walks through the streets of Rio, lots of corrupt cops and bad guys, lots of social evil, we're thrust into the middle of it without detailed explanation and because of that we almost become part of it, part of the investigation (and Garcia-Roza's cop, Inspector Espinosa is always at the center of the investigation, not at the periphery as is Silva, and is much more of a living, breathing character in spite of no back story being given). Maybe I'm beating a dead horse--I didn't like Blood of the Wicked, but is; should it be enough to just say that and not try to analyze my reaction?