Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review: Blackout. An Inspector Espinosa Mystery.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza. NY: Henry Holt and Co., 2008.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-7960-9
ISBN-10: 0-8050-7960-2

Michael Sedano

Blackout is as good a title as any for this mystery set in Rio de Janeiro’s fabled Copacabana and Ipanema neighborhoods. Sadly, the blackout of the title is more a gimmick than a psychological condition experienced by the suspect. In a typical fictional blackout, a character commits a series of acts then loses memory of having performed the actions. The detectives and the character’s loved ones then must unravel clues then assign responsibility.

But in Blackout, the central character does not suffer blackouts. His problem, really, is not a damaged memory nor situational blindness but a profoundly haunting event that so terrifies him that his memory superimposes visions from that long ago upon events at hand. He acts on what he thinks he sees, then lies and covers up when he later discovers the actuality that confronted him. None of this is a blackout, so why that title?

Maybe it’s translation from some Brazilian Portugese word whose closest English equivalent is “blackout”? (I write this without the book in hand and must depend on memory. I do not remember the translator's name, nor is it listed in the publisher's website). At any rate, “blackout” is not what happens to the Aldo, a successful interior decorator married to a beautiful psychologist.

When Aldo was a boy, a neighborhood bully bloodied the boy’s face. Aldo offered no resistance, no defensive posture, only meek submission to the beating. But the beating has a haunting effect on Aldo. He develops a lifelong fear of meeting up again with that bully. Garcia-Roza fails to develop the background of this terror. Instead, the author shows us one event that foreshadows the novel’s central event.

Some time after the beating, Aldo thinks he spots the bully headed in Aldo’s direction. Terrified at the thought of another meeting, another beating, Aldo cowers behind stacks of merchandise in a small shop until the shopkeeper asks if the boy needs help. Shaking with fear, the boy abandons his hiding place to hesitantly peek out the storefront. No bully. One moment he was on the street, the next, an empty street. Who knows what set off the panic, but the reader understands Aldo has been terrorized by a figment of his imagination.

Years later, Aldo is moving his car during a thunderous rainstorm. Suddenly out of the darkness, an apparition appears to Aldo’s eyes. It is the bully. Isn’t it?

The next morning, a one-legged man is discovered dead, shot in the chest at the top of a hill. Now the mystery begins. How, or why, does a one-legged man make the strenuous trek from flatlands to the cul-de-sac at the top of a steep hill? Who killed him? Why? Aldo and others were at the scene around the time of the murder, but they have no obvious connection to the nameless corpse.

Meanwhile, back at the office, Aldo’s assistant is a hot young beauty named Mercedes. She sets her sights on Aldo and it’s only a matter of crooking her little finger and Aldo is in her bed. The triumphant Mercedes begins scheming to take Aldo from his wife and two kids. To this point, Aldo was a semi-likeable character. Now, seeing how easily he falls into adultery, the reader loses any loyalty to Aldo and is willing to sit back and let bad stuff happen to Aldo.

Aldo’s wife is murdered. But not before the reader sees her in therapy sessions with attractive women, and seemingly crossing the boundary between counselor and lover. How sad to witness three people—Aldo, his wife, and Mercedes the assistant--with such comfortable lives discarding all for a fast fling with a good-looking target.

With a cast of such unattractive, even repellent, characters, the reader cares ever more about Espinosa’s sleuthing. With the wife dead, Espinosa discovers the affair between Mercedes and Aldo. Then a clue here, a clue there, and, almost haphazardly, with only a few pages remaining, Espinosa pins their respective crimes on them.

Blackout is an engaging story but I want to know more about the characters. We see Aldo pushed around as a kid, but have no idea why the boy doesn’t fight back, nor what leads him to be such a ninny that Mercedes finds him easy pickings. We don’t get to see connections between Mercedes’ history and her predatory nature, nor what motivates her to such drastic acts.

There may be a method behind this. Although Blackout has much undeveloped territory, the lacunae help the reader understand the milieu that Inspector Espinosa and his staff work in. Since the reader knows only as much as the detectives, as the case unfolds the reader is forced to set aside logic and causality and simply watch the cops do their job. In the process, the reader will enjoy the delight of discovery and the surprises that Garcia-Roza dishes out. Not a bad trade-off, and one worth picking up the novel for.

That's the view from Lincoln Nebraska this week, the third Tuesday of March. Looking forward to being home next week, but reading some good stuff while on this trip to the great plains. Les wachamos.


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