It’s 1954 Rio de Janeiro. Alberto Mattos is that rarest of all birds – an honest police detective in a department where everyone’s on the take. Everyone, including his boss, his subordinate, the cops on the beat, and all the other departments. He is also that rare bird who believes in following the law, which means letting suspects go when there’s no evidence.
It’s a perilous time in Rio and Brazil. A failed attempt to kill a journalist is leading to protests, condemnations, and the military beginning to become more than restless. Politicians, even those who support the current president of the country, are considering changing allegiances for their own safety and survival. The press is do its best to keep public opinion inflamed. One senator, a supporter of the president, has his plate full of worries, including the possibility that his own involvement in graft and corruption may come to light.
Mattos is called to a murder scene. A man of about 30 has been found strangled in his bed; he turns out to be the head of a finance and trading firm at the center of graft and corruption. The evidence is strange – blood on the bed does not belong to the victim, and someone, likely the killer, took a shower after the murder. The man’s wife is having an affair with the husband of a former girlfriend of Mattos. Mattos soon learns that every suspect has a motive, and every suspect has an alibi.
Through a multitude of interlocking and overlapping circles of relationships, Mattos must thread his way through passion, infidelity, corruption, political instability, and colleagues who assume they are the law. And all the while he’s nursing a serious stomach ulcer.
Crimes of August by Rubem Fonseca was first published in Portuguese in 1990. The English edition, published in 2014, was translated by Clifford Landers. It is a dark tale, tracking several different stories simultaneously, all framed by the detective’s investigation but eventually leading to a fusion of motives and events. Fonseca included a number of real people as characters and real events, artfully blending them into a coherent story. The novel includes a multitude of names, some looking and sounding close but actually belonging to characters. As a result, the novel requires a close reading, but the reward for doing so is a large one.
Fonseca began writing later and he specialized in crime writing. He lived most of life in Rio de Janeiro. He became a police officer in suburban Rio in 1952, writing the crime reports that would later become the basis for his stories. He studied business administration at New York University from 1953 to 1954, returning to the police force in Rio until 1958. He began writing stories in the early 1960s, and published his first collection, “The Prisoners,” in 1963. His works were often censored by the Brazilian military government for their violent and sexually graphic content. Fonseca received numerous prizes for his writing, including the Luís de Camões Prize for Literature and the Juan Rulfo Literature Prize for Latin American and Caribbean Literature. He died in April of 2020.
While Crimes of August is set in a Brazilian city some 66 years ago, and published 30 years ago, at times it seems eerily contemporary and transcending its geography – fearful and power-hungry politicians, elites who believe the law doesn’t apply to them, crime in the streets that seems out of control, and a press less concerned with the news and more concerned with using its power to bring down a government. It’s a compelling story.