A threatening manifestation of pride and dementia: Rubem Fonseca’s Detective Novel
Detectives are the fools of the universe, without receiving any exemption from the dangers of uttering truths. Lumbering through a corrupt, hypocrite, violent world armed with nothing but convictions and an inflated sense of morality. What is that makes detective novels the last bastions of morality in modern fiction? Nowhere else is truth and rectitude treated so seriously without the author winking at the reader. Is it because it makes the detective’s fall only more inevitable? Perhaps not in the beginning. Auguste Dupin certainly continued to solve mysteries after he found the purloined letter. And Sherlock Holmes retired to the countryside to become a beekeeper. There are no reports that they met tragic ends. For detectives of serial fiction, at least, life never seems to pose convincing dangers. Writing in the 1930s, Fernando Pessoa, the last person in the world who should be commenting detective fiction, criticised novels that depicted attempts on detectives’ lives. What was the point, he asked, when the hero is unkillable? The problem is that authors don’t like killing a goose that lays golden eggs. And regardless of varying merits of the series, Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Nero Wolfe, and Philip Marlowe paid their creators’ bills. Whenever G. K. Chesterton, who considered his pamphlets and articles his most important work, was short of cash, he just sat down and wrote some more Father Brown stories, always a sure hit.
Inasmuch as we can speak of genres evolving, I think the detective novel has improved in the sense that writers now create detectives when they really have something to say through them, and don’t reuse them just because the readers like them. I think of The Name of the Rose, The Black Dahlia, Equal Danger. Not enough examples to signify a paradigm shift, but I’m more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to a stand-alone detective novel than the third entry into a ten-part series and counting. By being part of a series the writer milks for his sustenance, detective novels become predictable and unexciting, two things they should not be. In a stand-alone novel the reader never knows what will happen to the detective. The last time a detective series really surprised me was Carlo Lucarelli’s Inspector De Luca, which benefits from being a trilogy, having a well-defined character arc and coming bound in a single volume, effectively making it one novel. Nowadays, then, we have detectives who may or may not survive, who may or may not solve crimes, who may or may not be as clever as they think. They retain their predecessors’ passion for truth and justice, but these values no longer make them invincible. A case in point is Commissioner Alberto Mattos, from Rubem Fonseca’s Agosto (1990).
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1954. Mattos is investigating the murder of a businessman. His partner is Inspector Rosalvo, a much older, more experienced cop who is on the take like everyone else in the police force, but unlike others is so discreet Mattos thinks he’s clean. He needs to think there’s at least someone as honest as him.
Mattos’ colleagues consider him dangerous: he’s honest, doesn’t accept bribes, upholds the law, lectures to cops who bend it, genuinely wants to improve things. Once he tried to organise a strike in favour of better treatment for inmates but found no support. Since then the top brass has been trying to find an excuse to get rid of him. Criminals see his honesty as “a threatening manifestation of pride and dementia.” His colleague, Commissioner Pádua, tells him he “got into the wrong profession” and considers him a sanctimonious fool. But in intelligence and behaviour he’s a good detective.
Before becoming a cop, Mattos worked as a defence lawyer after Law school. He only joined the force because he liked working 24 hours and resting 72, which gave him ample time to study to become a judge. He’s one year away from finishing the course. He doesn’t even know why anyone wants to become a cop. One of the tragedies of his life is that he hates this job he does so well. He’s constantly questioning his own effectiveness. After arresting a wife-beater, he broods, “He upheld the law. Did he make the world better?” He cares about the inmates and is sympathetic to their plight. As the commissioner of a police station, he’s in charge of the cells, bursting with inmates. He worries about the lack of room and the smell, and even campaigned to improve the quality of the food. He may be the only person who cares for them. “The world didn’t want to know about those bandits, let them fuck on top of each other like filthy vermin. The police existed to hide that rottenness from the delicate eyes and noses of well-to-do people.” Sometimes he chastises himself for his lack of courage. “If he weren’t complacent, a cowardly conformist, he’d use Inmate Day to release all those miserable inmates. But he only noted down their complaints and returned to his room.” He’s harsher on himself than he should be, but perhaps that’s the mark of a truly good person, never thinking he’s good enough. Or maybe his self-flagellation is just pride. Let the reader decide.
Like Inspector Rogas, Mattos is an art lover. His taste in music veers towards operas like La Traviata and La Bohème. He admires Hume’s scepticism and believes that doubting reality and logic are the keys to find the truth. Like every detective after Sherlock Holmes, Mattos has that moment in the book when he explains his personal deductive method, simultaneously making reference to Holmes and deviating from him.
If I haven’t written a lot about the crime Mattos is investigating, it’s only because his private life and personality are so rich and interesting. Two women love him: Salete and Alice. Salete, his current girlfriend, is a superficial girl of humble origins who only wants a life of luxuries. She has a rich lover who dotes on her, but her true love is Mattos. The other woman, Alice, belongs to his past and re-enters his life during the investigation. She comes from an upper-class family, which adds friction to her relationship with Mattos. Mattos doesn’t like rich people; as his interest in the inmates shows he prefers the downtrodden, the helpless.
Going to the opera, to concerts, to museums, pretending they read the classics, it was all part of a great hypocrite performance by the rich, whose purpose was to show that they – he thought especially of Alice and her family – belonged to a special class of people who, unlike the ignorant populace, knew how to see, hear and eat with elegance and sensibility, which justified possession of money and the enjoyment of privileges.
His prejudices have good reasons. Most of the rich people he meets only want to sate their appetites – money, women, little boys, more money, political power.
Salete’s lover is a businessman who had dealings with the dead man Mattos is investigating. Alice is married to a man who is having an affair with the dead man’s wife. On top of that Alice is clinically depressed and a risk to herself. A rich, turbulent personal life.
There’s not a lot to say about the crime itself save that Mattos has a hard time making any progress. The murder exposes a shady deal connecting the dead man’s company, Cemtex, to a senator and the presidential palace itself. Then he makes so many enemies along the way, three different hitmen are hired by three different people, for three different motives, to kill him. If that weren’t enough, Mattos is investigating a high-profile murder during the worst month of 1954. August also happens to be the month dictator-cum-president Getúlio Vargas committed suicide. The novel deftly explains why. His chief of security, Gregório Fortunato, nicknamed The Black Angel, planned the assassination of Carlos Lacerda, a right-wing journalist and ferocious opponent of the regime. He hired a bunch of morons who screwed up the hit, but not before killing Lacerda’s bodyguard, an officer of the air force. The army got involved in and directly controlled the investigation, to make sure the government didn’t suppress the truth. The culprits were apprehended. Public opinion turned against Vargas, and his generals could no longer keep law and order. “When generals can only order other generals, things are doing badly. Very badly,” says Vítor Freitas, the senator who had dealings with the dead man and who wants to amass political influence. He’s shrewd enough to see that his party can no longer support a vulnerable president lest it become irrelevant. “Supporting a weak and corrupt government had provided him with very many good businesses. But now was the time to abandon the boat.”
So Mattos has to deal with a pederast senator who thinks he’s investigating him for a murder, the air force officers who derail his investigation because they think he’s a double agent wreaking havoc on the investigation on Vargas’ orders, a mentally unstable ex married to a suspect, and the criminals he meets on his day-to-day affairs as a police commissioner. Because what I love about this novel is that crime doesn’t stop. While Mattos investigates one murder other crimes happen that have nothing to do with it, because unlike in fiction, the world doesn’t stand by when the police investigates a murder. Fiction has gotten us badly used to that detective who has only one case in his hands, when in truth detectives are busy with several at the same time. In Mattos’ case it’s worse because he’s a police precinct commissioner, which means he has 24 hour shifts and everything that happens in his jurisdiction during that period is his responsibility. So besides the main case he has to deal with a wife-beater, an illegal gambling boss who doesn’t like his overbearing attitude to corruption, and a man who kills another during an argument. Each situation reveals something extra about Mattos and, if not essential to the mystery’s economy, makes the book more realistic and the protagonist much more human.
More than a detective novel, Agosto is the snapshot of a society. Rubem Fonseca shows mastery in the way he positions all his characters to show us Rio de Janeiro and its fringes, from the favelas to the senate’s secret whorehouse, from the chaotic police precincts to Vargas’ bedchamber where his era violently comes to an end. The cast of characters is vivid and remarkable. In Salete we have a young woman determined to rise above the poverty she came from, judging herself solely on her appearance and power to seduce men. She mellows along the novel, though, when she decides to take care of her mother, whom she hasn’t seen since she ran away to become a prostitute. In a bizarre reflection of Mattos who abhors the rich, we have Paulo Lomagno and Luciana, elite members who hate the nouveau rich, vulgar arrivistes to them. Even within the rich divisions exist. Lomagno is one of the most despicable characters but even he is allowed some humanity in the way he continues to worry for Alice’s condition even after he cheats on her. He also acts as our guide into the shady world of businesses. Lomagno, senator Freitas, Gregório Fortunato all have dealings together because private enterprise doesn’t work without political protection, indicting the whole system of corruption: unless you’re willing to get your hands dirty you won’t be anything in life. As above so below. The thugs and hitmen who operate on lower levels aren’t different. Mattos roughs up Ilídio, a bicheiro, who pays a hitman to kill him. A bicheiro is the name given to a banker of an illegal lottery game, the bicho. It takes the other bicheiros, older and wiser, to dissuade him because it’s unheard of to kill a commissioner and bad for business. Ilídio had made the mistake of thinking Mattos was a cop on the take, and got a surprise.
The cops are no less fascinating. Mattos gets his colleagues mad because he has a knack for releasing suspects if the facts don’t support the arrest. Particularly he’s always releasing men arrested by Pádua, who hates him for being a do-gooder. In spite of that he respects Matto because he doesn’t take bribes. In his own violent and psychopathic way, Pádua is the second only decent cop in the book. They just have two wholly different methods and temperaments, which makes their conversations so amusing. Thinking of them I’m remembered of the great chemistry between Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential.
“Let’s imagine a situation, Mattos. You’re walking along a street here in our jurisdiction at two in the morning and you see a guy in a corner with a suspicious attitude.”
“What is a suspicious attitude?”
“Damn it, Mattos, a guy standing in a dark corner in the morning is always a suspicious attitude.”
“Especially if he’s black.”
“That’s right, damn it. You’re walking at two in the morning in a street of your district and you see a black guy standing in a corner. What can a black guy be doing in a corner at that hour? Or even a fucking white guy? I tell you what he’s doing: waiting for someone to rob or looking for a house to steal. So I go and arrest the son of a bitch. Cautionary measure plain and simple. Then I send for his file. If he’s clean, I release the guy.”
Mattos is a policeman who, in Pádua’s words, believes in “that Saint Thomas Aquinas malarkey that it’s better to absolve one hundred guilty men than to sentence one innocent one.” As for Pádua, the city has been ‘handed over to the criminals’ and it takes harsh, illegal measures to protect the innocent from them. Meanwhile Rosalvo, like the corrupt cop he is, sells information to senator Freitas’ men, who want him to mess up the investigation if it becomes a threat to the senator.
It’s in this sinister, cynical world, of fact and history intertwined, that Mattos treads, alone, with an ulcer in his stomach, feared and mistrusted by everyone, doubting his own purpose, but pushing on, for like other great doomed detectives he has nothing to live for save the case he’s investigating.
Although St. Orberose does not touch on genre fiction, detective fiction is my favourite genre. I’m a strong believer that when a detective novel is well written, it’s the best possible kind of novel. Agosto has qualities that make me rank it alongside Equal Danger, The Black Dahlia and other exponents of the genre. In terms of building a chilling story with a true crime in the background, Fonseca is James Ellroy’s equal. Like Equal Danger, his novel is less about solving a crime than exploring the ramifications of a crime throughout society. Like Sciascia before him, Fonseca is more interested in analysing his tragic protagonist than analysing crime scenes. If it hasn’t become clear yet, Agosto is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.
Good news for English readers: Tagus Press plans to publish a translation called Crimes of August. It’s to be done by Clifford E. Landers, who previously translated The Taker and Winning The Game. Rubem Fonseca has been called the best detective fiction writer of modern times. I have no doubts this novel will show why.