PARADISE AND TURMOIL ON THE BALTIC: LIZA MARKLUND
In Liza Marklund's novel Paradise newspaper sub-editor Annika Bengtzon is trying to recover from the violent death of her fiance that occurred in the preceding book, Studio 69.
A few comments and thoughts about crime books set on the mainland of Europe, with titbits about real eurocrime. We hear so much about crime in the USA that many people imagine that Europe is a crime free zone. In crime fiction Europe has become a real challenger to the Americans, but unfortunately real life crime especially in Britain is increasing as well.
Crime Scraps: Other countries have vast disparities between the rich and the poor but police death squads seem to be unique to Brazil and other Latin American countries. What do you think the reasons for this are?
Leighton: I can’t speak for the other countries of South America, but I can say this about Brazil: the judiciary system is a mess; there are many corrupt judges; it takes an eternity for a case to come to trial; there is little space in the overcrowded prisons; there is no death penalty; sentences tend to be lax. More than eighty percent of all felons wind up being released before serving out their terms.
Brazilian death squads, usually composed of cops, stem from a misguided attempt to bring justice to the legal system. They’re like the vigilantes of the old American West. Sometimes, though, such squads are recruited for more nefarious purposes, purposes that have nothing to do with a perception of justice. I deal with an instance of this in Blood of the Wicked.
Crime Scraps: You described Brazil as a very rich country with a lot of very poor people. Would entry into an expanded G9 or a seat on the UN Security Council begin a process of improving the social conditions for the poor?
Leighton: No, I don’t think it would. Did you know that the United Nations peacekeepers currently in Haiti are all Brazilian troops? And the fact that, whenever there’s been a natural disaster anywhere in South America, Brazil has always stepped in to help? Brazil is anxious for a bigger role on the world stage, and there’s no doubt in my mind that facilitating that would be helpful to other, less fortunate peoples. Unfortunately, though, it would be unlikely to have any internal effect.
Crime Scraps: If the books were brought to the screen who would you have in mind to pay the parts of Mario, Hector and Agente Arnaldo Nunes?
Leighton: Dustin Hoffman would probably make a great Silva, Johnny Depp a great Hector and Russel Crowe would shine as Arnaldo. But you know what? I’d really like to see the film made in Brazil, with Brazilian actors and spoken in Portuguese. Yeah, I know, it’s hardly going to build major readership in the first world or make me famous. But it would be personally satisfying.
I’d like to call your readers’ attention to two Brazilian films: Elite Troop (Tropa da Elite) and City of God (Cidade de Deus). Brazilian crime films are far more “real” than most of what comes out of Hollywood. BOTW reflects that reality.
Crime Scraps: Who are your favourite crime fiction authors?
Leighton: Have you read Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind? Terrific Book! Eric Ambler’s work continues to appeal to me. So does much of John Le Carré and almost everything published by Soho Crime and Bitter Lemon Press. Anybody who hasn’t yet checked out their web sites – should.
Crime Scraps: What crime fiction book would you like to have written, and why?
Leighton: Picking just one is really difficult. Maybe Ian Pears’ An Incidence of the Fingerpost? A staggering achievement!
Crime Scraps: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Brazil’s future? Do you see the countries wealth eventually filtering down to the masses?
Leighton: Brazil, in the time I’ve known it, has gone from a military dictatorship to a true democracy. It’s a flawed democracy, often a corrupt democracy, but a true democracy nonetheless. There is absolute freedom of the press and there is absolute freedom of expression. The current President is an ex-union leader with a grade school education, committed to the redistribution of wealth. He can’t do it alone, and he can’t do it overnight, but the country is certainly moving in the right direction. All in all, I’m intensely optimistic about Brazil’s future – just don’t ask me to put a timetable on it.
Thanks very much Leighton for taking the time to answer my questions, and I am really looking forward to reading Buried Strangers and posting a review before the end of the year.
This interview was conducted before the recent financial meltdown. Some economists believed that Brazil along with India, China and Russia, the so -called BRIC group, had de-coupled their expanding economies from the West. From the evidence of the past few days this was wishful thinking but we can only watch and wait to see what the future will hold for Brazil.
Crime Scraps: Blood of the Wicked reads as if you find the writing process quite easy or does it take a lot of hard work to produce that smooth Brazilian style?
Leighton: It takes a lot of hard work. There are, I suppose, some geniuses who can rattle off line after line of brilliant prose and get it right the first time. But I’ve never met one, and I’m certainly not one myself. My technique is to keep re-reading what I’ve written (both silently and aloud) until it “sounds right”. That generally takes at least twice as long as it does to get the initial story and dialogue down on paper.
When I was starting out in advertising, I heard an ancient copywriter (It’s a young person’s business, so she was probably half the age I am now) make this remark: “great ads aren’t written. They’re re-written, and re-written, and re-written.” I’d extend that to novels. Did you know that Ernest Hemmingway was reputed to have written the last chapter of For Whom The Bell Tolls twenty-seven times? He once said, and this is a quote, “First drafts are shit.” I agree with him.
Crime Scraps: I think Blood of the Wicked is a perfect example of crime fiction be being used as an educational resource. Do you think that this is the most important papart of your role as a writer especially as most people know so very little about BrBrazil except that it produces great footballers?
Leighton: Some writers set education as their first priority, but if a novelist does that, I think he’s misinterpreting his role. People buy novels to be entertained. My first responsibility, therefore, is to cobble together a cracking good story populated with characters readers would like to spend time with. Once I’ve done that, I’m free to educate. And I do. With every book.
Crime Scraps: The main protagonist in BOTW is Mario Silva who is Chief Inspector for Criminal Matters of the Federal Police of Brazil. Does such a post exist and are Mario and his nephew Hector Costa based on any real people? Why did you make them Federal cops?
Leighton: If I may, Norman, let me take the last of those questions first: I made Mario and Hector federal cops so they’d have a mandate that could carry them (and my readers) to the most distant corners of the republic. That same mandate involves them in a myriad of criminal issues that are denied to Brazil’s military, civil and municipal police. Those issues include political and judicial corruption, dope smuggling, white slave trafficking, death squads and much, much more.
You won’t, however, find a Chief Inspector for Criminal Matters on the organizational chart of the Brazilian Federal Police. In the creation of that title, I have taken dramatic license.
That said, both Silva and his nephew, Hector, are very much based on two cops of my acquaintance. I can’t be more specific than that. Those gentlemen wouldn’t want me to be.
Crime Scraps: It is very good news that there are three more Mario Silva investigations in the pipeline can you tell us what broadly subjects they will cover? And when ththey will be published?
Leighton: Gladly. Buried Strangers debuts in the US in January of 2009. It takes place in São Paulo and will, I think, give readers more of a feel for that wonderful and terrible place. It’s about a certain kind of corruption in the medical profession, something that would be unlikely to occur anywhere in the first world.
Dying Gasp will be available in the US in January of 2010, hopefully earlier in Europe. In it, Silva and Hector travel to Manaus, the self-styled “capital of the Amazon”, where they take on the prostitution (and worse) of minors.
The Tenth Passenger, the fourth book in the series, deals with political ambition and corruption – and also with the drug trade. It some ways, it’s the most “mysterious” of the lot – a true whodunit. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on that one.
[To be continued]
I really enjoyed reading the thriller Blood of the Wicked by Leighton Gage featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva which I reviewed here.
The Booklist review stated that it "vividly evokes a country of political corruption, startling economic disparity and relentless crime'.
I agree and found myself getting involved with interesting characters who were then summarily eliminated by the villains which gave the novel a very gritty realism. This novel was not a mystery but an exciting thriller which packed a lot into its 320 pages.
I had intended to watch the Brazilian film 'Tropa da Elite' about the Brazilian government's paramilitary force formed to tackle the drug wars in Rio's favelas this week but this proved impossible because of family commitments and the film's short run. But just viewing the exciting trailer convinced me that 'Blood of the Wicked' is an accurate and frightening picture of life for some in Brazil. Although we should not forget that Brazil is also a land of great beaches, beautiful people, fine food and stunning scenery.
The author of Blood of the Wicked Leighton Gage was kind enough to answer a few questions in order to give us a rare insight into the making of a writer, the writing process and the future of Brazil.
Crime Scraps: From reading your biography you have had a varied and very successful career why did you decide to become a crime writer?
Leighton: There’s no simple answer to that one, Norman, not for me. If I’d undergone an epiphany, as some writers claim to have done, I might be able to point to a single event that transformed me from a reader to a writer. But, in my case, it wasn’t like that at all. It was a process, a process that took years.
By the time I was a budding adolescent, I was already into books. My earliest heroes were Robin Hood, The Knights of the Round Table, The Three Musketeers. In those days, an adult wouldn’t think of picking up Treasure Island or Kidnapped. Robert Louis Stevenson was for us kids, remember?
In my late teens and early twenties I read the hot novels, immersed myself in Mitchener, Fleming, Mario Puzo, Leon Uris, the two Irvings, Stone and Wallace. I discovered poetry, memorized a lot of it, can still quote Yeats, Houseman and Kipling by the yard. I blush to admit that I plagiarized some of that poetry and sent it to girls. None of those girls ever caught me out, which probably says something about the sort of young women I admired in those days.
In my forties, my reading matter started shifting toward histories, biographies and crime novels set in exotic locations. I discovered Eric Ambler. It still hadn’t crossed my mind that I might produce something of my own.
Then, in my mid-fifties, restlessness set in. I’m not talking about a midlife crisis, nothing as serious as that, but I was beginning to find my day job repetitive and boring. Meantime, I’d acquired long years of experience with Brazil, a huge and fascinating country that few people outside the continent know anything about. Meantime, too, I was still reading those crime novels. And thus it was that, almost half a century after I picked up my first book, I started toying with the idea of seeing my name on a spine, finding my work in a bookshop or a library.
The final catalyst came when a law enforcement professional, a childhood friend of my Brazilian brother-in-law, exposed me to the intricacies of one of his murder investigations. I was hooked. Next day, I opened a file on my computer and started making notes. After a number of false starts, and a few years to learn the craft, what emerged was Blood of the Wicked.
Crime Scraps: You have been in the advertising industry and a documentary filmmaker do you think this has helped you make BOTW such a vivid book?
Leighton: Thank you for calling BOTW a vivid book. There’s no doubt in my mind that my professional background helped me to make it so. In advertising, I used to be charged with creating radio and television commercials. The experience taught me about dialogue and about story telling. Film making taught me a great deal more. When you’re shooting a film or video, you’re compelled to think visually, even if you’re jotting down your initial ideas in the form of words. Modern novels are all about “showing”, not “telling”, using words to help the reader “see” the action. (And hear, smell, touch and taste it as well.) Long passages of pure narrative description can kill a book. Both readers and writers have “learned” from the television/film experience. Criteria today are far different than they were a hundred years ago. A guy who writes like Charles Dickens, but isn’t Charles Dickens, isn’t going to get anything into print in the twenty-first century.
Crime Scraps: How do you go about the process of writing a novel? Do you know how it is going to end before you start?
Leighton: I start by writing an outline, a précis of the characters and the plot. It ultimately winds-up in chapter order, but I seldom initiate the creative process with chapter one. More often than not, I outline the end before I tackle the beginning. That way, I know where I have to get to, where the final “surprise” lies, where the satisfying last words are going to come in. But here’s the dichotomy: I’ve never completed a book “as outlined”. Once I start writing the first draft, all bets are off. I keep asking myself how I can heighten the conflict, how I can ratchet up the tension. This sometimes necessitates the introduction of new chapters or the rearrangement of existing chapters. So all the way through the first draft, I’m writing the draft and re-writing the outline. Once the first draft is done, I check it against the outline and then lay the outline aside. I seldom pick it up again. Mind you, I’m not saying my process is the best one. It just happens to be the best one for me, one I’ve developed by trial-and-error. I know several authors who don’t outline at all and are able to turn out wonderful books. I’m afraid I’d be incapable of doing that.
[To be continued]