Paradise City by Joe Thomas

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Review by Annabel

Joe Thomas lived and taught in São Paulo, the most populous city in the Americas and Southern Hemisphere, for ten years. His observations and experience of living in this vibrant city full of extremes have inspired his first novel – and he has written a companion article for Shiny too (click here).

Paradise City is set a couple of years before the Brazil 2014 World Cup – São Paulo will be one of the host cities, and those in power have started the clean-up. São Paulo is a rich city, Brazil’s financial capital; it may have a glossy centro, increasingly full of high-rise condominiums, spreading suburbs and ever increasing traffic problems, but over 2 million of its 12M+ inhabitants still live in the favelas, the slums, of which Paraisópolis the largest favela still houses around 100,000 people.

The novel begins with a death:

The heat pulsed like a heartbeat, the clouds thickened and cracked. More shouts. Running. Renata froze. She looked across the road. The Military Police were advancing. Men in flip-flops ran from shadow to shadow. One was carrying a pistol, arm lowered.

Then, an unholy rattle. Renata took a step towards her car, limbs pushing through water. This is happening.

Gunfire. Strobing light.

And Renata glimpsed him – the last thing she ever saw. A teenager with gold teeth grinning, his rifle too power for him to control, police moving towards him from all sides.

Had human rights lawyer Renata left her office at the favela crossroads just minutes later, she might not have been caught in crossfire. This is what her husband Mario knows, she was killed by a bala perdida, a stray bullet – but a year later, he is still grieving. Each day before work he visits the edge of the favela, searching for an answer, quietly lurking, assuming he is unseen.

Mario, usually known by his surname, Leme, is a lowly detective in the city’s civil police. One morning, he is parked as usual in Paraisópolis when he witnesses a car crash. An expensive SUV, not the kind of car that belongs in the favela – the military police, the Militars, arrive immediately, but Leme is sure he saw bullet wounds in the body they take away.  Later, his boss warns him away from asking questions:

‘Best you keep out,’ Lagnado said. He leaned forward. ‘For your own good, actually. I hear you were there this morning. We all know why you have this … fascination with the favela. It’s not healthy. Leave it, certo?’

Leme nodded. ‘You say it was an accident?’ he said. ‘Nothing suspicious?’

Lagnado waved his arms in exasperation. ‘Drunk kid in a crash. Nada, entendeu?’

This attempted distraction is, of course, catnip to Leme. He feels compelled to investigate – quietly of course. His partner, Lisboa, thinks he should leave it, but Lisboa – his best friend since childhood – will always look after him.

Leme begins to investigate, getting off the record reports from colleagues, putting pressure on some informants, and lots of help from journalist Silva. Before long, he realises that everything from this ‘accident’ and assorted other crimes seems to lead to Sr Mendes, one of the city’s top businessmen in construction and that there is a complicated web of corruption to be uncovered – which probably reaches down as far as his boss and up towards top layers of local government. Leme and Lisboa must tread very carefully.

The political and financial power-play games of the super-rich in this novel contrast so completely with the human pawns they use to do their dirty work, nearly everyone, it seems, has a price. Leme moves from the low-life to the high-life, gradually working out the connections, which will also lead him to discover the truth about Renata’s death.

Providing further contrast is Leme’s life outside work. Shut away inside the walled compound, with its shared pool and garden, in his apartment, gradually pickling himself as he continues and obsess over Renata. It takes being set up with his neighbour Antonia for him to start to come out of his shell. Leme is a classic flawed cop, but he is a hugely sympathetic character. Adrift in his sea of grief he is a near alcoholic, never able to eat more than a few mouthfuls, sleeping badly, increasingly isolating himself. Thank goodness for Lisboa and later, Antonia.

Each time Leme ventures into the favela, there is a sense of menace, especially when he goes out with Carlos, the only Militar whom he can trust. Carlos tells him about car-jacking gangs and the tricks they use. Paraisópolis is simultaneously dangerous yet an exciting place to be, whereas Mendes’ offices and construction sites are just plain dangerous!

Thomas’s prose is sprinkled freely with Portuguese slang, sometimes subsequently reiterated in English, sometimes not, but it’s not necessary to understand the exact translation – you can always get the sense of the words. There’s also a good sprinkling of English swear words, which would have perhaps seemed less blunt in Portuguese!  Shadowing Leme’s moods, the text can be active, dialogue-driven, full of Leme’s observations, or descriptive and brooding, it never lacks for atmosphere. 

Paradise City is a contemporary crime novel that brings the extraordinary city of São Paulo to life. From the favelas to the high-rises via that terrible traffic, this is a city bursting with opportunity, and there will always be those who seek to use that for no good. Thomas is writing another, and I’m definitely looking forward to meeting Leme again.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Read a guest post by Joe Thomas about Sao Paolo HERE.

Joe Thomas, Paradise City (Arcadia, 2017) ISBN 978-1910050972, hardback, 400 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback, via our affiliate link (free UK P&P).