“São Paulo, 2015 –
Year of the goat. . .Year of the snake.
The snake? President Dilma Rousseff.”
A stylish, sharp-witted and taut contemporary thriller. Playboy oozes atmosphere; every page is drenched in local colour and the story seethes with conspiracy and dark forces in the background. There’s a genuine sense of danger for the characters in this novel, readers will be invested in their plight from early on. Anyone familiar with the first two novels will know that everything about the Leme series is to do with scale; the vastness of São Paulo, where things are writ large – work hard, play hard. The gap between the rich and poor is vast and unbridgeable and corruption isn’t about choice and getting involved in wrong doing, it’s about being born into a cauldron of sleaze and kickback from which you have to opt out – it’s all encompassing. The odd man out is the one who doesn’t want to take his cut, or turn a blind eye. Sometimes those who chose an independent path and try to do the right thing disappear for ever, even talking to the wrong person can get you killed. Meanwhile the life of the city goes on.
I’m not sure that Thomas would agree when I say that this novel, and the series in general, nail the modern city of São Paulo. Firstly, out of modesty, and, secondly, not wanting to overreach the importance of his fiction in presenting reality. He has a point but I do too, there’s something of the mood of the place, the heart of it in Playboy. I read this novel and I felt like I knew the people, the culture, the political life a lot better. It’s not all samba and football in São Paulo. Thomas lived in the city for ten years, he mixed with the Paulistanos; he wasn’t a standoff foreigner. It didn’t make him a local but his insight into the character of the place, the citizens and times infuse his writing. Playboy is a portrait of a vibrant place, alive with music and spontaneity, driven by a work ethic as the financial capital of South America but haunted by corruption. It’s a city of contradictions with a sense of inferiority but bags of pride. I interviewed Joe Thomas for NB Magazine, he explains the driving force of the city – the sense of Joy and the sense of longing. The politics and economic background underpin the story. Again, it’s about that gap between the rich and the poor and the staggering level of financial corruption in a poorly run authoritarian democracy. Yes, Brazil is a democracy but the police and the institutions of government are a law unto themselves. This country has emerged from dictatorship, that still weighs on the place. It may even be heading back that way under current extreme right wing President and Amazon destroyer, Zair Bolsonaro. Playboy is set during the reign of Dilma Rousseff, left-wing president and disciple of predecessor Lula da Silva.
Eleanor Boe is British, she’s been through a lot in her time in Brazil yet she still sticks her neck out – she knows what that can mean. Eleanor writes for OHLA online magazine, she’s currently got her teeth into Operação Lava Jato, operation carwash, a massive money laundering and bribery scandal rocking the Dilma Rousseff government. Some 500,000 people took to the streets in Brasilia to call for the president’s impeachment, 100,000 marched in her defence in São Paulo. The polarisation of left and right is deepening, opening the way for more extremism and populism but for now Dilma is hanging in there. The scandal implicates Petrobras, the company is one eighth of the economy, into refineries, construction, shipping – off shore money and bribes have been built into their contracts.
Detective Mario Leme is in his favourite restaurant as the military police are hosing down protesters on the street a few blocks away. Leme, isn’t too bothered by this. Marches used to be about protest but also a bit of fun, meeting up, drinking, fucking – the mood is changing. When he makes his way home he’s aware someone is watching him. Even a policeman is not safe in this city. Fat Joào gives Leme a tip – go to Praça Alexandre de Guzmão, the park, take a look. Leme is suspicious, but he’s a policeman, he has to make his way through the crowd to get there. At night time the city parks belong to the pimps, drug addicts, the homeless, it’s going to be dark soon. As Leme finds a body, a young man, a bullet hole in the chest, two militars (military police) turn up. The young man is a playboy type, rich and privileged. Leme is careful not to provoke them as they arrest him. Militar commander Carlos used to be Leme’s friend but he can’t count on that anymore. If they drive him to headquarters it’s official otherwise they might just put a bullet in his head (merced) . . .
Roberta is waiting for Antonio again, he’s a pain, she loves him but he treats her badly. He’s not answering his phone, his friends are tight lipped, and his company just say he’s on holiday. He not only left without her he didn’t even say he was going . . .
OK, so Leme survived but now he’s on the hook. Any time Carlos decides he wants to, he can pull Leme in for the murder of the unknown playboy. He should never have fallen victim to the pantomime show the militars arranged for him.
Junior was one of the officers who arrested Leme, Carlos decides to take the young man under his wing. Being a militar involves dirty stuff, junior has to prove himself . . .
Leme can’t investigate the playboy’s death but there are other things he can look into. He’s soon working with Ellie but it’s going to get dirty and dangerous. Can they actually make a difference?
Thomas has used a simple but effective technique of introducing local voices (Paulistanos), some real, some imagined. These vignettes colour the story. Camilla for instance tells us that the ‘playboys’, young rich boys, have no concept of the real world, they go to private school, private university and then into city jobs, no apprenticeship, no working through college, no mixing with the poor:
“ . . .I’d make every upper- and middle-class Paulistano do a month in McDonald’s. That’d be a start.”
Thomas’s style is hard-boiled, cynical and fatalist, with the kind of social critique that comes with the euro-noir tradition. Playboy is fast and contemporary, of course, this is set in Brazil and there’s something of the national and regional soul about it. Playboy beats to the rhythm of the music and lyrics of the bars of São Paulo.
This is a genuinely scary thriller that highlights the extreme poverty and powerlessness of the people, the untrustworthiness of the politicians and the staggering corruption – boom or bust the rich just get richer. It’s darker, sharper, pithier than the first two novels and goodness knows that’s not easy. The financial corruption at the heart of the story reaches as far as London, the home of dirty money. The structure of this novel series reminds me of The Wire in the way it tackles different aspects of the same over arching problem of the city in each book.
The final instalment next year will pull everything together, topping and tailing the story. A must for modern noir fans.
Paul Burke 5/5
Playboy by Joe Thomas
Arcadia Books 9781911350613 pbk Sep 2019