I’m a long-time crime fiction reader; I know the good from the bad and I know what I’m looking for. Joe Thomas’ Gringa (2018), set in modern day São Paulo, got me, it’s fresh, stylish, dark and layered. I went back to the first book in the series, Paradise City (2016), and then onto Playboy, the third novel in a quartet, which was published this September. This quartet will stays with you. Playboy is even sharper than the first two books. Thomas is fully at home with his subject, it’s a taut thriller that gets under the skin of the city. Next autumn will see the publication of the final part of the quartet, Brazilian Psycho, which will top and tail the series, bringing the story up to today.
I’m convinced that with luck and a fair wind Thomas will become a major British crime writer over the next few years and I’ve no doubt he could branch further afield if the mood strikes him. His first British-set crime novel, Bent, will be coming out in spring 2020. Set in the irresistible 60s it’s a fictionalised account of a real life anti-hero, ‘Tanky’ Challenor, corrupt cop, ex-SAS hero, Met Police legend. Bent’s Soho setting should appeal to a wide audience (more on that later).
The Mario Leme quartet is distinguished by their gritty realism and fast-paced, stylish noir. The background to Leme’s investigations is fascinating; the World Cup, the Olympic Games and two massive corruption scandals (the problem isn’t so much the criminals as the politicians, the police and big business). São Paulo makes for a wonderfully exotic location. I know it’s fiction, but this quartet shines a light on a part of the world most of us aren’t very familiar with.
I interviewed Joe Thomas over two days, first in August and then again at Capital Crime at the end of September. Thomas worked at the British School in São Paulo between 2002 and 2012, ‘a very swanky’ institution (it finds its way into the books). The exclusive institution catered for the children of the richest citizens, some of the most important people in the country, including the grandchildren of notorious ex-mayor and former presidential candidate Paulo Maluf. Thomas was in charge of the sixth form curriculum and university applications. The school existed in its own little bubble in an exclusive part of the city, but not content with that, Thomas immersed himself in the local culture. He came to understand the political and economic structure of the country and that São Paulo has its own distinct flavour. Paulistanos are different.
While in Brazil, Thomas began writing an English novel, now shelved. On returning to the UK, he realised a lot of what he had absorbed on Brazil would make great reading. Thomas is a history graduate, he completed a PhD at Royal Holloway, where he now teaches creative writing.
So where did the idea for a São Paulo-set crime series come from?
‘I started doing this multi-voice novel, a huge epic, I felt São Paulo needed lots of characters to capture its cultural diversity. I put it together, got an agent, but it didn’t quite work. I pulled it back, had a re-think; I realised the voice that I found most compelling was Leme [a cop], I enjoyed exploring the city from that perspective. I went away and wrote what became Paradise City. There was no plan to write a crime novel, it evolved. The original story I’ve now taken for the final book in the quartet was based on a real crime, the murder of the headmaster of the British school, which happened before I was there, in, shall we say, ‘quite interesting’ circumstances [Thomas wants to avoid spoilers]. That informs Brazilian Psycho, that crime is the starting point. I’d started to put together a non-fiction city guide but all that stuff wasn’t wasted, I use the ideas and the research for my novels.’
So was the imperative to write always there?
‘I think so. As a teenager I was a decent writer, academically, I always enjoyed that, it was something I thought about. I don’t think I realised what it meant to step up to writing fiction. I started doing that in my early twenties, the usual thing, writing dreadful novels, never completed. If you’re not attached to the literary scene you might only see the big success story in the press, the novel that knocks it out of the park, but most writers have a formative experience behind them. Why did I keep doing it? The best example I can give is my brother ran marathons, on the days he trained he felt better, if I spend time writing I feel better, better about my life generally. So I kept doing it. The desire to shape a narrative and interrogate something slowly drifted in. That big multi-voice novel that didn’t quite work, telling the story of the city through Leme was the best way to do it, it was much more engaged in the political aspects of São Paulo life.’
Thomas has just finished a fellowship at Royal Holloway, but teaching will remain a big part of his future. How does teaching complement his writing?
‘I love teaching and, as you probably know, very few writers are able to make a living from writing. I like the discipline it creates, having two roles in your life. Teaching creative writing has been very interesting. You are always looking to improve the experience for the reader and teaching informs it, thinking about technique, about genre. I use some crime excerpts in teaching but not much. I’d like to do a crime writing module.
I enjoy it, twin things going on, I’d rather be teaching than not. In discussions with MA students you start thinking about how you might do it differently yourself, you always do learn something. With Playboy I realised I had a problem with the day/date of a real protest march. The opening scene was set on a Sunday in the book for good reasons but actually occurred on a Friday. I deliberately moved it but worried over it and one of the students just said: why not add a note about some names, dates and characters are fictitious, that solves the problem.’
The Leme series stems from Thomas’ time in São Paulo, so what were his impressions of the city when he arrived? How did those impressions translate into the books?
‘I was born in London. One of the things I’m trying to do in the novel is capture that sense of what it’s like to be in a different place. One of the interesting things was working out how you can create a place that is familiar to the characters but yet mysterious and new to the reader. Obviously there are English characters in Playboy and Gringa, which make it’s easier. But in Paradise City how do I make a Brazilian, someone from Sao Paulo, a Paulistano, look at the world in a certain way to make the reader feel that they are looking at something new?
I suppose for me, when I arrived, the first thing noticed was the cacophony, the noise, the colours are brighter, there a lot going on, it’s messy. The impression was of vastness and concrete and cars, lots of cars. Then the heat, that’s significant too. From the airport to the centre of the city you get a taxi, you sit on the motorway for quite some time. It’s very intense. Then you see the failures of infrastructure, more than in London, although we have them here too, you can watch things not working. A kaleidoscopic experience.
I spend about six months in São Paulo and other parts of Brazil before I worked. I was able to approach that first period in a relaxed fashion, I wasn’t thrown into a job. I was able to explore and investigate on my own terms. But the British or Americans over there to work, thrown straight in, they only see one part of São Paulo.’
Did Thomas immerse himself in the experience then?
‘I didn’t deliberately do that. When you experience a new place you look, find things out, then after six months its your home, and you’re working there, you’re a city dweller. After a period I was unhappy, not with the place, but I spent a lot of my time on the weekends playing tennis in the condominium, fun but I lost some of the joy of the place. I missed London. You can’t really walk around the way you can in London, just walk by the river and wander and meet people. In Sao Paulo you’re kind of in one place until you get in a car and go somewhere else. You can’t just hop on a bus or walk, there’s not the same spontaneity to getting about.
That said, the Brazilians are hugely impulsive. When I first arrived in São Paulo drink driving was very common, everybody did it, I didn’t get a licence initially because of that, but there was a moment when they realised it was dangerous. They imposed a zero tolerance policy, now it sounds like no big deal but it did change things. You’d be in the neighbourhoods where people go out and they would just drive along drinking beer, yelling at each other, a mess, then they cut that out. If you were caught under the limit you were fined, over the limit you went to jail. So things changed and thankfully that meant a lot fewer deaths, it did stop some of the spontaneity, though for a good reason of course. The character of the city on the weekends changed, for the better clearly, but the bewildering mess and noise left a little bit, or maybe I just got used to it.’
So how well did Thomas take to the culture? What was it that he really got about Brazil?
‘The music, particularly, I was keen on. Several of the classics, Tim Maia, for example. I was excited by their music before I understood the lyrics and then I picked up the language pretty quickly and a whole new level opened up. Sao Paulo is a fun city, the night life is wonderful, if you get it right you’ve got an evening six ’til six, a range of entertainment; music, food and booze, of course.’
Does São Paulo differ from the rest of Brazil?
‘Yeah, because of the differences, the rivalry between Rio’s Cariocas and Sao Paulo’s Paulistanos really exists.’
I’ve heard it said that Sao Paolo is the capital of South America. It’s something you say in the books. The economy and endemic corruption are at the heart of the books in the Leme series, as the money is in São Paulo.
‘I used that line in a couple of the books, slightly flippantly, but also with some seriousness because the city is the financial muscle of the country. There’s a phrase something like: ‘São Paulo is the beating heart of Brazil and if it stops the country dies’. The economic heart might be the right phrase. The sheer amount of money and big business is extraordinary. There’s a seriousness to the city, the Rio stereotype is that Paulistanos are either at work or in the shopping mall. Paulistanos say that Cariocas are on the beach and lazy. These go back and forth. The Paulistanos are a mixture, there’s a serious work ethic and they do have the richest people in the world and then the poorest in the same place, often crossing paths. It’s very difficult to characterise the local people.
The people I was spending time with, teachers, my group of friends, tended to be in the arts. There’s, what might be described as, an emerging middle class, which was not there before. I was there when the BRIC economic miracle was kicking off, during the 2008/9 period to getting the Olympics and the World Cup and then it started going down again as I was leaving. When I arrived £1 bought you 5 reais, but by the time I left it was 3, a massive change. This is one of the things about Brazil, if you’ve spent most of your life in a country like Britain, of course there are economic shifts that occur and affect some people very strongly, but there is a general sense of stability. I’m talking over thirty, forty years, I don’t mean austerity, I’m not trying to lessen the significance of that. But I saw a shift in the economy over three to four years that was so dramatic. The very fact that we worry when the pound drops a couple of cents against the euro doesn’t compare to this change in Brazil where the economy doubled then began collapsing. The idea that the people in control, the government, could allow these changes was frightening and unsettling. I don’t want to make a direct comparison with the last ten years of what’s happened here, but for someone living in Brazil 2003-12 seeing the way things were going was very different, wider fluctuations, fewer controls, less state responsibility.’
How do the politics play into the novels? There was a long period of dictatorship before democracy, and boom and bust. The poor tend vote right wing, but let’s start with ‘Joy and longing’, the way you describe the melancholy/resigned character of the city.
‘It’s very difficult to look back on these three books without thinking about what’s happening now. There’s a line in Playboy where I predicted a populist right-wing demagogue type figure, which was before he’d even run [current President Bolsonaro], so I saw it coming, [tongue in cheek]. With hindsight, you could argue that these three books prefigure the last ten months to a year in the sense that they are illustrating an erosion of faith in the political systems.
So how that’s connected to the joy and longing [alegria-saudade] thing, the dichotomy? I think that the popular conception from the outside is of a joyful place and there is a great deal of joy, a welcome, have a good time, it’s a sensual place, it’s hot, it’s outside, the music’s upbeat, even when melancholic, there’s still the sense of entertainment, they love to dance, those kind to things. Yet, at the same time, this runs alongside a political system, and this is my feeling, not an expert analysis, it’s my experience there’s a sense that this is politics, it is what it is, basically an acknowledgement of corruption, the short cup [referred to in the books, a sort of acknowledgement of the little deals underpin the bigger corruptions in the system]. That exists, the little coffee, there’s always a short cut. When I arrived I needed to get a job so I paid a man to expedite my work visa, it cost £400, that sped up the process, that’s a job in Brazil. A sense of acceptance of a corrupt system that impacts on the lives of the citizens but not on that sense of joyfulness, so we accept this and we are going to behave happy.
That is something that changed over the last few years before I left. Playboy has got a lot of, and Gringa introduced, the protests [that came out of the growing disquiet]. That came to a head in 2016, but to my mind the protest and the activism kicked in around 2011. I wouldn’t suggest the political system was passive before that but there was an acceptance. Then partly because of the big scandals that came out, monthly kickbacks, the payments that feature in Paradise City and the Lava Jato in Playboy [operation Car Wash uncovered massive fraudulent invoicing and money laundering], the extent of the corruption became better known. In terms of the ten years I was there, it felt like there was an acceptance of a way of dealing with bureaucracy and the political situation that changed. Towards the end of my time there and the period in the books, people were taking steps to uncover the extent of the corruption. This is a reductive analysis but this has resulted in Bolsonaro’s election [an extreme right-wing populist who claimed to above the political system].’
The march Thomas refers to at the beginning of Playboy is an odd dichotomy not experienced elsewhere. I mention the march being serious but also fun.
‘That little article in Playboy on the march is light hearted [characters are interested as much in sex as in politics], but that disappeared. That’s why I put it in, the naivety of the early marches changed. Towards the end of the book, Playboy, we can see that’s no longer the case. I thought let’s turn the march into something stereotypically Brazilian from the outsider’s perspective. Now it’s a sad place, my friends have told me there’s the black and white division between the political sides, even more polarising than Brexit, more pronounced [this may seem had to believe but the violence in Brazil can lead to murder].’
Does Thomas sense any Brazilian influence in his writing?
‘No, I read [Ana Maria] Machado, the playwright, [Joaquin Maria Machado de] Assis, the novelist, and the other classics. I found, and maybe this is the classic insider/outsider perspective, I was particularly reading a lot of English stuff, then when I was back here I was reading Brazilian stuff again! The Brazilian influence was living there and the music more so than the writing. There’s a couple of Brazilian writers I admire, Daniel Galera and Paulo Lins. They became friends of mine, both are more literary writers (both translated into English). Paulo has a political side, looking at social injustice, Daniel the political is part of the landscape of the personal transformations of the characters. There was an influence of those writers in looking at the impact of living in Brazil and how they felt about that in their fiction.’
What was the vision behind the idea of the quartet? Did it have something to do with what Thomas wanted to say about Brazil?
‘Originally I wanted to do a quartet, it hadn’t anything to do with what I wanted to say about Brazil, but I’m a big admirer of the LA Quartet [James Ellroy, a writing style Thomas’ work has been compared to] and David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet. And it struck me that reading four books set in a specific period or place is really satisfying, purely that. I did a critical part of my PhD on Peace, I liked the idea that you had a defined canvass to explore a time and a place and characters within that, and the readers know you are going to finish. I wasn’t interested in an on-going series. With all due respect to writers that do produce books like that, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Denise Mina, who I admire a lot, I didn’t want to do that. I liked the idea of producing something complete.’
The specifics of the crime aren’t really the point of the stories, are they?
‘The characters are the most important thing in the books, I hope they come alive on the page, but the crime to me is a way to explore and see the city. I don’t have the skill or the imagination to pick a crime and then another crime and just keep going. In the three novels so far and the one to come, Brazilian Psycho, I’ve used different forms, different characters, different styles and I hope that they provide several perspectives, that was hard but really satisfying, and then using other media was also satisfying [the stories mix local voices, which work really well, with magazine reports and traditional storytelling to great effect, offering insight and moving the story in at a pace]. The books are not so much about capturing Brazil as Sao Paulo and wanting to capture that specific period, but I don’t think I realised quite what I wanted it to achieve until I finished writing Playboy.’
Is it fair to compare the Leme quartet to, say, the Wire in its exposé of Baltimore? Thomas covers the land issues, the corruption, the finance boom and bust, and the socio-political situation of 2003-2016.
‘That’s what I would hope [he’s a little sceptical, a bit wary of claiming too much for his novels, I think]. Whether or not I achieve that, it sounds too definitive a statement, it’s my idea of the place. When I got to the end of Playboy, the second and third books were written before the first one was published, there was some time before the publisher agreed to the last book. Playboy made up a trilogy, but I wanted the fourth book to unify the piece. Now I’m a long way into book four, Brazilian Psycho, and understanding it I was looking to document 2003 to 2019, what Sao Paulo is, that’s the goal.’
How does research figure in this?
‘Playboy covers a period of time I wasn’t there for [2011-2016, when Thomas was back in the UK]. The setting remains, I suppose the research is based on living there and connections with friends I’m still in touch with. Structures and procedures of administration I picked up there. Research is easier, I had a guy I was friendly with, a cop, but I didn’t know it was research. All the stuff in the books is based on something, I gathered all this research as experience. The fourth book will cover the period I was there [it will go back to before the three books that have already been published and then come forward to the present day]. I had a lot more knowledge than I realised, I’m hopeful that even though it’s fictional, it’s true to the characters there. It’s not about technical research but character interactions, I don’t go in for a lot of forensic science.’
Did events surprise Thomas, overtake the work in a sense?
‘No, not quite, the first book is 2012, then 2014, 2016 we are discovering the consequences of what happened in these books now. The books are contained in the period covered. Specifically, with Playboy I wanted to set it in the period just before the beginning of the Dilma crisis, 2016 [Rousseff, the left-wing president, was heavily embroiled in corruption scandals]. That wasn’t the beginning of doubt in her, that went back to 2011 when she took over, in that first year she got rid of five corrupt ministers, and that’s part of what Brazilian Psycho will look at. The building crisis of corruption was happening during the first two books but when I was writing Playboy I was seeing the consequences playing out. I decided it was important not to get ahead of myself in the books, not to be didactic. That early period of 2016 with protests going either way [the period covered by the novel with pro and con marches], you don’t know what would happen [the government fell and Bolsonaro took over]. They didn’t know Dilma would be impeached and the way things would pan out. I was having to make sure I contained it within the couple of weeks and there’s a postscript to Playboy which I was able to write later when I had seen what happened.’
How important is the accuracy of the language, the history, and the politics in the books?
‘It’s fiction. I had a certain amount of insecurity, a nagging feeling, living there ten years but I’m also a foreigner and there is an insider/outsider element. I worry about the presumption, not cultural appropriation, I thought about that and studied it, but it has to have a rigour of thought, a responsibility. It’s not quite that accuracy is important as much as a feeling of the place and time. These books are fiction but I hope there’s a sort of truth. Across all three books so far there are incidents based on real events. The books have become more rooted in the figures in the background. In Paradise City the corruption scandal is real but the bad senator is a fictional creation. The position he holds is real, the company he was in charge of could be one of a number to real firms. But in Gringa and Playboy the background figures I’ve been using come from real life a lot more but the idea is that the real-life figures are always in the background, not the protagonist or antagonists in the book, that’s what I’ve been looking to do more recently. An accuracy of atmosphere and feeling you could pick out. Playboy a fictionalised version of real events.
Ellroy once wrote that he was interested in American Tabloid in using the Kennedys and glimpsing their private lives, I liked that idea, maybe that will feature more in Brazilian Psycho. With Dilma as a constant, the other politicians are fictional, but the framework is real.’
The novels have a young English reporter in them, Ellie. She is both a direct character and a chronicler of events. What does she bring to the novels?
‘The reason for Ellie; I wrote her into Paradise City because I wanted to have a young English voice, someone who would be an outsider getting involved, getting into trouble, which she does. I enjoyed writing her character, it’s as simple as that I decided I wanted her to be a significant part of the book. [Ellie has a slightly different role in Playboy, she reports on the political situation propelling the background story forward].
I could use a lot of my foreigner’s perception of the city and it works well. I always intended that Gringa wouldn’t be just a Leme book. Their interactions in Paradise City were good, I liked the way it was developing. I liked the idea of a young Englishwoman discovering what she wanted to do with her life in a foreign city. Figuring out things halfway round the world.’
Is the Leme quartet noir? Does Thomas actually care about labels?
‘I think most titles come down to publishing and how the industry works but I like noir from the American hardboiled tradition.’
Did Thomas cultivate a Brazilian rhythm to the stories stylistically?
‘I like stylish prose, fragmented, scatter gun. I like David Peace, the style, the intensity, the relentlessness, the darkness is so impressive. But I also like Ellroy’s anarchic glee, in humour and slang, the zip and the jazz. Dialogue is important, it’s hard but I like it. That comes from the way I approach it. How do I take a Brazilian character and create that rhythm in English, the way I did it was to take a whole lot of slang, American/English/Brazilian, as a way to create a rhythm that sounded a bit like the way the Brazilians go back and forward. Using some of the phatic things in Portuguese like ‘init’ it felt to me the best way to capture in English was the slang mix, lump it all together, come up with something fun to read. Not try to translate phrases that just wouldn’t work, and Brazilian chat is a hotchpotch of influences anyway. To get something of the Brazilian ‘to knock chins’, they love standing around shooting the breeze. Purists might disagree but equally it seems to me the most faithful way.’
Does Thomas think the style in Playboy changes?
‘In Gringa and Paradise City but particularly Playboy I wanted to stretch up for higher echelons of society structurally, change the focus a little. Stylistically I’ve got these different characters; Roberta thinks and speaks in a different form to the others, Junior is similar to Leme. I feel that the style in the first two-thirds of the novel is varied but there a coherence to the approach. The final part I let Leme go, a different style to what I’ve done before. I wanted there to be a relentless pace to the final fifty pages, creating an ominous portentous build up to the ending. I read The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner and I was influenced by the way she was mixing things, something of a coincidence with the style I was using. [It’s more than this though, Playboy is sharper, honed, it feels like Thomas is evolving, the novel is taut, lean and yet feels more comprehensive, more complete. It has begun the shift to the bigger picture, Brazilian Psycho.]’
Leme, the cop, is at the centre of things in all four novels. He is essentially honest but he’s also a product of time and place, of the dictatorship. He has a Brazilian policeman’s reactionary attitudes.
‘Yeah, well, the flawed detective is not new, I wanted to explore the idea of someone who lost everything so therefore their position in the corrupt and broken system almost led to a nihilistic crusade. That was too miserable, it didn’t happen. Yes, he’s reactionary, but more practical and honest. What does it mean to be practical in the system Leme encounters in the novels? A political power structure that is ethically dubious, how do you discoursed with that power? Where does that leave you in terms of the difference you can effect? Leme is not actively side-lined but things have happened and he hasn’t been able to pursue investigations [in a straightforward manner because of clashing with the military police and the authorities]. I didn’t want a proactive figure with a crusader’s zeal, I wanted a bloke unable to pursue what he thinks he should be pursuing but finding a way to do something that allows him to make progress. To be honest, you have to work practically within the system. For Leme, it’s personal in Paradise City [his wife has been murdered], but more practical after that. But in Playboy he gets into something he can’t so anything about, gets drawn into a closed off situation, then an opportunity appears. It’s a desire not to be any worse than you have to be.’
I ask about the local voices. There’s one early in the book, a teacher talks about how playboys have no idea of the real world.
‘The teacher, yes, she’s a friend of mine. Camilla, actually a colleague. They are fictionalised conversations I’ve had. Some interviews I conducted for the A to Z of Sao Paulo, so some are real, others are made up, I’m not saying which. They anchor the text. Now Ellie is doing the kind of thing I was going to do.’
In Playboy, the military police, led by Carlos, an old friend of Leme, look to frame Leme.
‘[The military police kill with impunity under the new regime in Rio de Janeiro, extra judicial murders have increased in the last couple of years]. It would be easy to create a pantomime villain, but these guys inspire genuine fear, one scandal not investigated is the death squads. I’ve created a São Paulo equivalent, I got an idea of how they operate. The horrible things in these books, especially the opening to the fourth book, I couldn’t make up, they are far too unpleasant. Really nasty acts of violence, the really dark moments they come from something real that actually happened, I put a spin on it. Carlos is great for the books, his relationship with Leme in book one is very different to books two and three and he is a big scary character. What the military police get away with in the books is nothing compared to reality, anything I’ve made up it could be a lot worse.
When a bank robber was shot by a security guard from the school I worked at, everyone says ‘one less’, it’s fine. Nothing happened to the security guard, one law for the disenfranchised and another for the people who enforce the law. If the law is changeable what are you actually enforcing? [The murder rate in Brazil is over 60,000 people a year.] The election of Bolsonaro, a man with abhorrent views enables horrible hate crimes, attacks on LGBTQ community for instance. The military police are all big backers of Bolsonaro, they act with impunity. Brazilian Psycho catches something of that.’
The financial corruption in São Paulo reaches as far as London, the place Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, referred to as the most corrupt place in the world.
‘Lucy Caldwell, a writer friend, is my first reader, we talked about a scene with Ellie about money laundering that needed tightening up. The London stuff was based on a piece written in the Guardian. I can’t show the whole structure of how Capital SP, the financial firm in Playboy, connects to the London situation, it would be another book, but I wanted to show how it was possible. I’m not an expert but I understood enough about the connection to tease out what can happen.
It’s all about money, more money, so much money. In Brazil corruption isn’t a thing we agree to [perpetrate], we live corruption. How to negotiate a system that is broken, or more interestingly not that is broken, where corruption is endemic. How do you react when that corruption is being revealed for the first time? That’s what I was trying to get at, characters realising ‘hang on a minute’. That’s why I chose the early years, later it’s a lot clearer when we get to Lava Jato [the corruption exposed].
Playboy is a broad canvas but still concentrates on a specific example. I had the freedom to write about it because the characters don’t know where this is going (Dilma, corruption, the military police takeover, the whole system gradually revealed as rotten). However, in the new book we do know, we are going back to see how it happened, in Playboy there was less responsibility to the consequences. Brazilian Psycho has bigger questions to ask. Playboy was a pleasure with freedom and how the characters dealt with it, for example, Junior has the impulse to do the right thing but how?
It’s not crime, it’s how you react to crime.
‘It’s what I mean about acceptance of a society which is deeply flawed. That’s a line in Playboy, when there’s a homicide in Sao Paulo, whether people try to solve it or not, murders are still commonplace, crime exists. How do you exist in relation to it. For a detective, that’s literally a daily dilemma.’
Are characters happy because of, or perhaps in spite of, your situation?
‘The Brazilians’ attitude to politicians is that they don’t trust them. In that sense the default position is corrupt, unethical, it’s like a bad joke, first there was almost a light-hearted response. Only when it was pointed up [the corruption scandals exposed] did people realise it was not alright. There’s a brazenness, bribery is normal in Playboy so it’s not important. The difference between £60M and a £100M is nothing, between zero and £60M is massive. Scale: that’s what I first realised in Brazil compared to our MPs expenses.
It’s the connection between the quick coffee and the £60M siphoned off into a private account. What I’m trying to get to is; how does systemic corruption or small-scale societal practices fit in with the huge corruption of Lava Jato?’
Looking to Playboy, which was published in September, and on to the publication of Brazilian Psycho.
‘The first two books build towards the uncertainty which is Playboy, the broader macro level comes into sharper focus, new characters drive the plot. The final book will be at least twice the length. The idea is to complete the document. I always wanted quartet. In Brazilian Psycho I realise what I was discussing in Playboy has its roots much earlier, so I go back to 2003. Then I look at now, where the system is so riddled with corruption that people would rather not vote, even though it’s obligatory, or vote for an abhorrent right-wing candidate who claims to be outside and not corrupt. I see how it came about, I don’t support it, of course. The first three books build to that, the fourth book goes back and take us up to Paradise City and then we see the way in which society changes over 15 years, prosperity and social progress under a very corrupt left-wing government then decline.’
Playboy is out now; Paradise City and Gringa are also available. Brazilian Psycho will be released next autumn. At the Capital Crime Festival, I was able to go over a lot of what we discussed with Thomas. He let me see a little of the process that goes into writing the final part of the quartet and how it fits around the three books already published. At the time he was working through the link between the end of Playboy and the unfinished novel. It was interesting to hear him throw out ideas although, of course, he wasn’t letting anything slip. We also got onto his first British novel set between WWII in Italy and 1960s Soho, Bent.
A writer to keep an eye on, watch out for Thomas. I think he has a great future. I leave you with a few comments by authors who’ve had a chance to read Bent (spring 2020):
Brilliant. Bent compellingly re-imagines a shocking true story of bravery and deception with all the manic energy and terrifying presence of its subject – Jake Arnott, author of The Long Firm
Vivid, stylish, funny – Mick Herron, author of the Jackson Lamb novels
From the cool spine of Italy to the burning heart of London, Bent merges war and peace as it shows how our traumatised heroes helped shape Britain in the decades following the Second World War. While the Sixties swing, one man’s need for order is undercut by a seething anger and some righteous violence. Written with love and respect, Bent is a snappy, thoughtful, moving novel – John King, author of The Football Factory
“… no one has delved so deeply into what turned a Wartime hero of the SAS into a peacetime detective whose attempts to ‘clean up Soho’ led to igimony and the epithet most readily applied to him Bent until Joe Thomas braved his way into Tanky’s skull, effectively channeling Challenor in this vivid recreation of the events that forged and then destroyed his reputation. Utterly brilliant – Cathi Unsworth, author of That Old Black Magic and Bad Penny Blues