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São Paulo: City of Extremes

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São Paulo – the most populous city in Brazil; the largest Portuguese speaking city in the world; arguably the fourth largest metropolitan area in the world and a major financial, corporate, and commercial centre for the country. And also a melting pot city – Arabs, Italians, Portuguese, Jews from all over Europe, and Japanese among others have all made São Paulo home and have added to its distinctive feel. It’s a city of skyscrapers, buzzing helicopters, traffic jams, a serious soccer addiction, and the massive energy of the Paulistanos, as the locals are known. São Paulo crime fiction is invariably tough, hard boiled and accentuates the problems within Brazilian society and its justice system.  

A really good place to start delving into São Paulo crime writing is Joe Thomas’s São Paulo Quartet – Paradise City (2016), Gringa (2018), Playboy (2019), and Brazilian Psycho (2021). Thomas is English but moved to São Paulo and fell in love with the place – the distinctive (shall we say!) smell of the Tietê River, the miles of anonymous urban sprawl in all directions, the heat. And, though the traffic and crime are terrible, Thomas found an energy that excited him. The first book in the series, Paradise City, is named after the Paraisópolis favela, an incredible physical symbol to the huge gulf between rich and poor in the city. According to Thomas, crime in São Paulo is run by a gang called PCC – from jail. He told The Guardian, ‘On the weekend before the World Cup in 2006, they demanded wide screen TVs to watch the game. When the authorities refused they said they’d cause chaos across the city – and they did for three days.’ The Quartet is not just a series of great crime novels but a way to learn the ins and outs of São Paulo from favela etiquette to why, if you ever visit, you need to eat a pastel – a deep-fried pastry with a cheese or meat filling which you’ll find at stalls everywhere. 

For a slightly earlier era in São Paulo, Leighton Gage is a good source. Gage, who died in 2013, split his time between split time between his home in Santana do Parnaiba, a village near São Paolo, and Florida. His time in Brazil inspired the Chief Inspector Mario Silva Investigations series reflecting the twenty years he lived in Brazil and his love of the local culture. There are seven books in the procedural series starting with Blood of the Wicked (2008). Chief Inspector Mario Silva of Brazil’s Federal Police is a good cop in a bad system. Silva, and his partner “Baby Face” Gonçalves, are forced to work within a justice system is rife with corruption. Book two in the series, Buried Strangers (2009), is Gage’s book most rooted in São Paulo. A skeleton is found in the woods on the outskirts of the city and Silva is summoned from his base in the capital, Brasilia, to unravel the web of politics and corruption in São Paulo. The series moves location from books to book, both urban settings and some investigations that take Silva into the Amazon jungle. All are well worth reading and cover such contemporary issues as pornography, organ theft, underage prostitution and the illegal destruction of the rain forest. 

Writing crime books seems to attract many from other walks of celebrity life – Gypsy Rose Lee, Anthony Bourdain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and various others… and so too the Brazilian musician and lead guitarist with Brazilian mega-rock band Titãs (who have released twenty albums and sold over six million records to date), Antonio Bellotto. Bellotto is São Paulo born and bred. He set his heart on becoming a guitarist in the mould of Hendrix or Clapton, but he also loved books. His first book, Bellini and the Sphinx (1994), features a detective who living in the São Paulo suburbs. It was a big success and later inspired a Brazilian movie. Bellini and the Sphinx finally got translated into English in 2019 and was praised by everyone including CrimeReads and the Chicago Review of Books. Several other books in the series, including the follow up to Bellini and the Sphinx, Bellini and the Devil (1997), Bellini and the Spirits (2005) and, Bellini and the Labyrinth (2014) are yet to be translated into English. 

Bellotto, who also is the long-running host of a popular television program focused on literature and music, Afinando a língua, has also gone on to edit São Paulo Noir (2018), for the consistently excellent Akashic Noir series which features writing by Bellotto as well as many other local Brazilian authors not much translated unfortunately – Olivia Maia, Marcelino Freire, Beatriz Bracher & Maria S. Carvalhosa, Fernando Bonassi, Marcelo Rubens Paiva, Marçal Aquino, Jô Soares, Mario Prata, Ferréz, Vanessa Barbara, Ilana Casoy, and Drauzio Varella. In his introduction to the book Bellotto notes that São Paulo includes a district known as Cracolândia (Crackland) and that among the violent and neglected communities spread along its periphery, one bears the ironic name Paraisópolis (Paradise City). 

Among these writers only Bellotto and Jô Soares have made it into English sadly. Soares’s Twelve Fingers: Biography of an Anarchist (2001) is a wild ride featuring Dimitri Borja Korozec, born in the late 1800s to a Brazilian contortionist mother and a fanatically nationalist Serbian linotypist father. Korozec is a Zelig-like character throughout the early twentieth century, and an assassin, who interacts with (among others!) Mata Hari, Al Capone, Carmen Miranda, Marie Curie, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, George Raft, and even the old English occultist Aleister Crowley. It’s not really crime, it’s not really fact or fiction…but it is fun. 

I feel it’s also worth mentioning a couple of non-fiction books that explore the underbelly of São Paulo. Gabriel Feltran is an ethnographer deeply immersed in the city. His study The Entangled City: Crime as Urban Fabric (2020) in São Paulo looks at many elements of the city’s criminal world including illegal markets, union busting, drug dealing and car theft. He studies the clash between the everyday the young black men of the favelas São Paulo’s white middle classes. Equally interesting is Teresa PR Caldeira’s City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo (2001). Caldeira examines the patterns and the dynamics of São Paulo crime by comparing the city to Los Angeles and other large global metropolises. 

And finally, as usual a book that does not perhaps neatly fit the crime fiction genre but is revealing of the city and contains insights into the inner, and often murky, workings of the place. In São Paulo’s case a good example is James Scudamore’s Heliopolis, long listed for the Booker Prize in 2009. It’s a rambling but insightful tale of the city – As a child Ludo is plucked out of the São Paulo shantytown where he is born and transported to a world of languid, cosseted luxury. At twenty-seven he finds himself working high above the sprawling metropolis for a vacuous ‘communications company’. But this is not his world, and this is not a simple rags-to-riches story: Ludo’s destiny moves him around like a chess piece, showing him both extremities of opulent excess and abject poverty, taking him to the brink of madness and brutality.

Heliopolis, as much as Joe Thomas’s Paradise City, or pretty much all the other books on this list stress the extremes of São Paulo – rich and poor, black and white, lucky and unlucky, honest and corrupt. 

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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