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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Monday, May 5, 2014

"Rio" Has a Hero with a Hard Heart and a Harder Head


A Man From Rio
By Shayne Youngblood
E-book
Approximately 94 pages
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
ASIN: B00IHIQSXK

To paraphrase Rod Serling, imagine if you will, a country in which criminals control entire neighborhoods, narcotics are the basis of financial transactions, the police are corrupt and venal, and normal people survive by trying their damnedest to ignore the rampant criminality around them.

No -- we aren't referring to the United States, although the description could easily apply to a number of communities, including New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.

We are talking about Brazil, a nation in which the national obsession is soccer, the national preoccupation is cosmetic surgery, criminality is a way of life and poverty exists alongside luxury like nowhere else on earth.

It is the setting for A Man from Rio, Shayne Youngblood's excellent bit of noir, in which the central character searches fruitlessly for his young lover, a college-age Brazilian woman who has disappeared during a road trip through the Amazon back country.

Shayne Youngblood

Youngblood's book is one of those rarities -- an international thriller that gives the reader an actual feeling for its foreign setting. It is not likely to be offered by the nation's Tourist and Convention Bureau as an advertisement for a "Visita o Brasil" campaign, however.

The author, who has spent time in Brazil, uses his first-hand familiarity with the country to paint a grim picture of shanty towns in which the primary industry is vice, splattered across a background of gleaming beaches, high-end bars and a steaming jungle perfect for concealing evidence.

A Man from Rio is like a Ralph Steadman caricature of tour-group Brazil, only with blood in the splatters instead of black ink.

Like all first-rate noir, an atmosphere of doom pervades the novel. The novel begins with our hero -- whose background is sketchy and whose name seems to change depending on who is trying to murder him -- being assaulted for his cash by a street thug.

A short time later he encounters a teenage pickpocket who robs him.

Our protagonist runs the youth down, lectures him and then, in a moment of weakness, buys him lunch. When they part, he realizes the kid has taken his wallet, anyway.

Soon afterward, the protagonist is enlisted by a friend to ride shotgun while the man tries to find the body of his murdered brother. The mission ends when he is clubbed senseless by crooked policemen who want the dead to remain undiscovered.

The incidents serve as a metaphor for the amorphous omnipresence of Brazilian evil and the futility of trying to do anything about it. By the end of the book, the reader realizes there is no herbicide for the weed of crime, even though our anti-hero seems to think one is possible.

Youngblood's book gave me a headache: every time his protagonist turns around, some thug cracks him in the skull with a hard, blunt object. If he isn't being knocked out, he is being chased, cut or beaten like timbales during Carnival.

The action is hot and heavy, almost in the form of a collection of vignettes organized into a coherent story-line by the anti-hero's efforts to hustle some cash and his search for the missing woman. 

Youngblood is a practitioner of a form of literary minimalism, in which he sketches scenes briefly and suggestively and lets the reader fill in the blanks:

Flav said, "If you need a plastic surgery, it's free for you. I need practice."

Flav'd studied plastic surgery, hoping to get rich by pumping silicon in butts in his father's cosmetic and reconstructive surgery clinic.

"I need a boob job, I let you know."

And:

After lunch and a few drinks, Daniel said he was taking a group of tourists on a favela tour. He wanted me to come along.

"It's been pacified."

"Pacified" meant that, instead of drug lords, the favela was now controlled by crooked cops.

The book ends much as it began: abruptly and violently, without clear resolution. The doomed loser who is the book's central character survives, but barely, and his future looks bleak. 

What is clear is that the brutality that surrounds him will go on, whether he does or not.






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