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by Luis Fernando Verissimo and Margaret Jull Costa, trans.
Macklehose, October 2012
12.00 GBP
ISBN: 0857051121

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The anonymous Brazilian hero of THE SPIES reviews manuscripts from writers seeking publication and receives (in parts) something which immediately catches his imagination. The title and subject matter suggest to him, and a cast of odd characters who play a role in his life, that in a certain small town in the interior the writer, Ariadne, is under threat from a powerful family into which she is married. To find out more, they visit the town, Frondosa, separately and under cover. They find Frondosa in ferment about a five-a-side football match, and are suspected of something quite unexpected, which complicates the intended rescue of Ariadne from her oppressors.

It has to be said that THE SPIES lies at the periphery of what is normally expected from the crime/thriller genre. If a crime is committed at all, it doesn't happen until the final pages. The characters are all extremely odd, and are defined by how they appear and what they say rather than any substantive facts about them. And the action is more akin to the magic realism of (say) Louis de Bernières than to the detailed scenic depictions seen in most crime novels. The book does however have an odd charm and engaging humour.

The protagonist remains throughout a mysterious character. He has a wife, but we find out little about her except for her exasperation with the behaviour of her husband. The man himself is identified primarily by his heroic weekend drinking binges, which leave him so hungover that manuscripts received early in the week mainly hit the waste bin unread. His life does however seem to be an open book to a handful of men who frequent the local 'Bar do Espanhol'. It is there he takes his thoughts about the mysterious manuscript, obtains a suggestion about who the writer might be, and formulates plans to infiltrate Frondosa. What he conceals is his growing romantic attachment to Ariadne, and his dreams of sweeping her off, like some latter-day Don Quixote.

Verissimo writes with confidence and style and is a popular Brazilian writer with more than sixty published titles. There is a light touch about his work which belies some pointed comments about the behaviour of people singly and en masse, and the lack of hard fact draws the reader into the story in the search for answers. Those habituated to the complex plotting and detailed characterisations of much contemporary crime fiction may perhaps find the absence disturbing, and the gentle and whimsical style an acquired taste. Those seeking an authentic Brazilian flavour, however, may find THE SPIES an interesting contrast.

§ Chris Roberts is a retired manager of shopping centres in Hong Kong, and now lives in Bristol, primarily reading.

Reviewed by Chris Roberts, January 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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