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objets trouvés

13 november 2017

Objets trouvés is a rather leisurely murder mystery, which is odd because the mysterious murders are singularly gruesome, and substantial in number.

But this is Rio de Janeiro in the 1990s, where certain human lives are cheap: prostitutes, con men, kids who live rough on the streets, and people who try to help all of the above. The novel's six murder victims are "la lie de la société" (249), "des gens que la police considère comme les rebuts" (246): the dregs of society, people the police think of as trash.

There is ample scope here for a topical Krimi full of social critique, but Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza doesn't quite bring that off. In fact, I have to say that the plot of Objets trouvés is a bit dopey. Victims are picked off in a widening spiral that starts with the prostitute Magali, who lived under the (apparently futile) protection of the retired police commissaire Vieira. Magali has driven the drunken Vieira home one night, and he's lost his wallet in the process. A homeless boy finds the wallet, discards it after collecting the cash, and a grifter finds it, proceeding to make criminal use of Vieira's police ID. Both are killed, and another homeless boy and a teacher who educates boys on the street are killed too, some of them with weapons stolen from Vieira and his friend Espinosa, who are beaten and/or tied up and terrorized, as is Vieira's new girlfriend Flor. This all takes quite a while to happen, and there is virtually no police procedure devoted to catching any of the perps in the meantime.

This all sounds like a massive crime spree, but apparently nobody in Rio pays much attention. Espinosa (the hero of the series, an active police commissar) and Vieira are forced to conclude that some corrupt cop has hired a hitman to do what he does best. But why all the non-lethal tying-up? Why are Espinosa and Vieira basing their theory on pure conjecture? Why is Espinosa convinced that the next victim will be the artist Kika, with whom he's tentatively edging toward a relationship, and why do the two older cops, along with their younger assistant Maldonado, start spending all their time standing guard in Kika's apartment?

The two sleepless commissaires are convinced that the whole affair will come to a head on a hot Christmas Eve, and they somehow decide to stake out a hotel where the hired killer has checked in for the big event. The goofy theory at times even perplexes Espinosa himself, though it results in an undeniably suspenseful final scene, distantly reminiscent of the famous three-way standoff from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Objets trouvés ("Found Items") was called Achados e perdidos ("Found and Lost," i.e. "Lost and Found") in the original Portuguese, but is called December Heat in Benjamin Moser's 2003 English translation. I read it in French because it would take me months to read it in Portuguese, and if I was going to have to read it in translation anyway, I thought I'd try the French version – which is strongly-written by Valérie Lermite and Eliana Machado.

Garcia-Roza, Luiz Alfredo. Objets trouvés. [Achados e perdidos, 1998.] Translated by Valérie Lermite & Eliana Machado. 2005. Arles: Babel Noir [Actes Sud], 2009.