December Heat

by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Published by Henry Holt and Company

288 pages, 2003

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Bravo, Rio!

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Misfits make splendid detectives -- in fiction, anyway. The maverick, the outsider, the loner who's been distanced from his peers by guilt or weakness or manifest transgression -- these character types could hardly be more commonplace in criminal tales, yet they continue to appeal. Their perspective from the outer edges of convention allows them to see what's not so apparent to people who've been compromised by social acceptance. At least that's the theory. And it certainly holds true in December Heat, the second book in a trilogy by Brazilian author-academic Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza.

Like his previous novel, The Silence of the Rain (one of January's favorite books of 2002), Heat relies on the investigative acumen of Inspector Espinosa, a bookish and independent cop in Rio de Janeiro who's recently been transferred from his old downtown precinct to scenic Copacabana, where he lives by himself in an elegant third-story apartment inherited from his parents, who died when Espinosa was 14 years old. More a dreamer than a determined enforcer of justice, the inspector explains at one point in this atmospheric tale that he only went into the police force "because I wanted to get married." He continues:

"I was finishing my law degree and was in love with a fellow student. The closest thing I could get to a job was an unpaid internship at a law firm. Then I saw an announcement that the police force was giving priority to people with law degrees. I took the test, got in, joined the force, and got married. The marriage ended a few years later, but I stayed in the police. Just like that."

Espinosa has learned a few things in his now more than 15 years with the Rio police, among those being that open-and-shut cases are rarely so simple. Take, for instance, the slaying of a prostitute named Magali. She's found dead one morning in her tiny Copacabana apartment, naked, her head covered by a plastic bag full of Mace traces, and her legs secured to the cast-iron bed with a leather belt belonging to retired cop Vieira Crisóstomo. The much-senior Vieira, who'd been Magali's "companion and protector" for the last two years, was spotted with her the night before, stumbling drunk out of a restaurant and losing his wallet in the process. But do opportunity and his waist strap at the crime scene add up to the ex-policeman's culpability? Vieira insists he was too fond of his mistress to do her harm. "Magali," he says, "wasn't something you killed; Magali was something you'd plant to see if more would grow." Yet Vieira has no alibi: his intoxication allegedly left him without memories of what transpired immediately after his dinner with the decedent. It's only Espinosa's hard-won skepticism that keeps Vieira free of jail. "I don't think you're stupid enough to accumulate so much evidence against yourself," the inspector tells his old colleague.

If Vieira didn't asphyxiate Magali, though, who did? And could this pre-Christmas crime be somehow related to Vieira's billfold, the disappearance of which has precipitated a whole series of homicides -- the victims including a burned-alive street kid?

Espinosa's investigation is conducted at a restrained pace that may frustrate readers accustomed to "ah-ha!" moments of superhuman perception, but it gets results. While trying to find the homeless boy who originally snatched up Vieira's dropped wallet, the inspector exposes a drug-trafficking scheme that involves corrupt cops, and incites assaults on both Vieira and himself. He also meets a young painter, Kika, with whom he strikes up a hopeful relationship -- but who he eventually winds up having to protect. Meanwhile, Vieira can't believe his good fortune in "inheriting" a gorgeous new paramour: Magali's younger associate Florinda, who claims that the dead woman's debt of gratitude to Vieira is now hers to pay back in the specie of libidinous bliss. But is Flor the compassionate hooker she appears ... or a woman no less manipulative than she is seductive? Could Flor have been complicit in Magali's death and the subsequent tragedies? Answers to these questions come in due time, and lead to an ending that is as surprising as it is inevitable.

December Heat (translated, like The Silence of the Rain, by Benjamin Moser) isn't big on forensic gore or cinematic gunplay, and its focus deviates frequently from criminal matters to more romantic ones. Garcia-Roza comes off in these pages as a joyful sensualist, who can appreciate a sun-blessed beach with the same exuberance that he does the supple curve of a woman's breast, the piquancy of a fine meal and the seemingly contradictory isolation to be had within a crowd:

The noise of the cars, the voices of the pedestrians, the cries of the street vendors, the music from the shops, the quaking of the traffic -- all worked as a formless whole, homogenous and continuous, like the noise of an air conditioner that eliminated external noises without making itself heard.

This author's cognizance extends to his characters, none of whom is remotely interchangeable with any others. There are bright moments of literary style and wit here, as well. Commenting on Kika's myriad charms, Espinosa tells her, "you have a navel that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that God exists and that he's a sculptor." Elsewhere, Flor considers the sexual naïveté of a young client, remarking that he "still couldn't distinguish a woman from an ice-cream cone."

Because this novel concentrates so much more on personalities than procedures, we learn practically nothing remarkable about Brazilian policing. And while Garcia-Roza convinces us that he cares about the members of Rio's homeless population, he provides little insight into the practicalities of their plight, opting instead for dramatic superficiality. Nonetheless, December Heat attracts as a smartly conceived, intelligent and distinctly foreign yarn, more erotically charged than tales produced in the puritanical United States or Britain. It's too bad there's reportedly just one final book-length adventure left for Inspector Espinosa, that work due out in English next year. This single-named protagonist deserves much more exposure beneath Rio's tropical sun. | May 2003


J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine. He's also the author of Eccentric Seattle, a collection of essays about the dreamers and schemers who built the Pacific Northwest's largest city, to be published this fall by Washington State University Press.