Joe Thomas’s São Paulo set thrillers are refreshingly original and deliciously dark. They have that authentic feel and a sense of place that makes them more chilling, more relevant. I’d rate Gringa as one of my favourite books of the year and Thomas as one of the most exciting new crime writers out there. I can’t think of another writer who has used sports corruption and gangsterism to illustrate the wider political situation to better effect, and all within a thriller that rocks.
Brazil’s profile was dramatically boosted around the globe by the World Cup and then the Olympic Games. So much of the press coverage outside the country was positive and largely ignored civil unrest and rioting, enforced relocation of communities (favela clearance), and the boom in crime and corruption. Brazil’s shady and volatile economy exploded with opportunities for gangs, officials and politicians to line their pockets. Joe Thomas took inspiration from the darker side of these world galas to produce a thrilling and original English language crime series. Football, and sport in general, usually come across badly in crime fiction but a thriller that features football in a political context, and looks at the money trail, is an inspired idea. Recently the pervasive financial corruption that blights the world game has begun to emerge into the light. Gringa focuses on the run up to the World Cup in 2014, there was a lot of disquiet in Brasil about the cost of staging the event and its effect on poor communities and the wider economy but there was a fortune to be made.
The underbelly of an emerging super-economy is fertile ground for a thriller, Brazil is the largest country in South America – nothing talks like money. Thomas’ intelligent novel makes the most of the location and the socio-economic situation to create a gritty, realistic noir. Gringa mixes heart stopping action with genuine social insight – it’s fast paced and gripping. Thomas has seized on the divide between rich and poor and the inherent corruption and abuse of power for this powerful murder mystery.
Gringa is set over five days in late October, 2013. Mario Leme of the Policia Civil in Sáo Paulo wants to avenge the death of his wife, Renata, the victim of a random shooting, a bala perdita – a stray bullet. His friend Carlos of the military police has intelligence on the shooter, a low level dealer. He’s hiding in the favelas, if they are going after him they will have to go in hard and fast. Meanwhile, an English journalist has gone missing, a woman Leme has shared stories and leads with, and it’s partly his fault. Ellie, a menina louca (wild child), has a big story, she asks Leme to ride shotgun to a meeting with a source to watch her back. As Leme follows Ellie she meets her boyfriend, Fernando, a humanitarian lawyer who vouched for the source. Ellie’s story is on Cracolândia, the ‘crack’ centre of Sào Paulo. The residents of the blocks known as noias are being moved out, intimidated, bullied and, maybe even, murdered. This is heavy stuff, Ellie works for a cultural English language magazine but she thinks she’s a war reporter. It’s all about gentrification and clean up for the upcoming World Cup. The source, Leonardo Bastos, works for the company in charge of clearances, Zarzur Cabral. On paper there are rules about dealing with the residents fairly but Ellie wants to find out what is really going on. Leme stays in the car as Ellie enters a derelict building, she never comes out, inside a young man with a goatee is tied to a chair with his throat slashed, it’s Bastos, no sign of Ellie. Leme and his partner Lisboa start tracking down Ellie’s movements, her contacts, can her boyfriend, who found the source, be trusted? Leme even begins to have doubts about his own girlfriend.
I loved Thomas’s prose style:
More like an open sewer, dark, ghostly men fishing out rubbish – Industrial waste bakes in the heat, the stink drifting in through his open windows.”
His writing is vivid and descriptive, it creates an almost dystopian image of a lawless city, or a semi-alien landscape, the world of the excluded. The social soundtrack to the thriller element of the story has real depth and it’s this insight which makes Gringa a meatier, more substantial read. Wide-scale corruption means that people become pawns of little concern to the financial and political interests that are happy to steamroller anyone who gets in the way, up to and including sanctioning murder. When the news of the bus protests was covered in the run-up to the Olympics it wasn’t merely an issue of transport prices but a sign of the deeper social divide and the economic and political disenfranchisement of ordinary people in Brazil. Thomas has harnessed this for his stories. He has a tight control of the plot that unfolds in flashback and in the present day in alternate chapters. Gringa gathers momentum and the denouement is sharp – Mario Leme has to face up to some uncomfortable truths in this investigation.
There are shades of James Ellroy in Thomas’ style, edgy, clipped, staccato phrases, but make no mistake Thomas has a distinct voice and one I want to hear more of. He really knows how to find and tell a story. If you want a thriller that’s a little exotic, a lot original and thoroughly entertaining, try Gringa. Reading Gringa certainly led me to the first book in the series, Paradise City, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Playboy, the next in the series, to be published this September.
Paul Burke 5/4
Gringa by Joe Thomas
Arcadia Books 9781911350347 pbk Jun 2019