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The Man Who Made a Brazilian Cop a Hero

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Walking on Rio de Janeiro's cratered sidewalks in March, novelist Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza tripped and fell on the pavement. He broke his nose in three places and needed a dozen stitches inside his mouth, but his real worry was about an appointment.

Scheduled to speak the next day at the Brazilian Academy of Letters, Garcia-Roza called to cancel, managing a gauze-garbled apology, certain the nation's literati would understand. "No! You can't cancel," the Academy handler protested, as Garcia-Roza recalled on a recent afternoon. "We have a full house."

Blame it on Inspector Espinosa: Garcia-Roza's character -- a genteel police detective from Copacabana's 12th precinct has become something of a fictional cult-figure and turned a former professor, now age 79, into one of Latin America's most successful crime novelists.

Most of Garcia-Roza's 11 novels have plots that pivot around a few streets in Copacabana; readers still write to ask which building Espinosa lives in. "Lost and Found," published in 1998, became a movie, albeit with Espinosa excised (itself a crime). A cable network has spun another of Garcia-Roza's novels into a mini-series that premieres Oct. 15. Garcia-Roza's work has been translated into six languages, including elegant English -- thanks to writer and translator Benjamin Moser.

So Garcia-Roza spoke at the academy. His doctor bandaged him up, plied him with painkillers and makeup, and in case of an emergency, escorted him to the lecture. "No one even noticed," he told me.

Nineteen years after the release of Garcia-Roza's prize-winning debut novel, "The Silence of the Rain," it's hard to say what is more remarkable: the respected but burned-out professor of philosophy and psychology, who left the academy and, late in life, morphed into a novelist, or the fabulist who turned a Brazilian cop into a hero.

It's no secret that police are among the least loved professionals in Brazil. Charged with keeping the peace in a particularly violent patch, they are more likely seen as part of the problem. Word has it that Brazilian cops come in two varieties -- trigger-happy or crooked.

If that sounds harsh, consider some numbers: Brazilian police killed 11,197 people from 2009 to 2013, about as many in five years as U.S. police did in three decades (1983 to 2012), according to the Brazilian Forum of Public Safety, a national think tank. Police also die at an alarming clip, but that gets less attention.

In Rio, Espinosa's bailiwick and Brazil's signature city, on-duty police killed 172 people in the first half of this year, a 23 percent increase from the same period last year, according to Rio's Institute for Public Safety. A national study published in 2013 found that only about 11 percent of residents of Rio state trusted police, one of the worst rankings among Brazil's states.

Meanwhile, detective work is shabby: About 5 to 8 percent of homicide cases in the country are solved. ("Here, in the fabulous Third World, we're lucky if the medical report tells us whether the victim died from a gunshot or poison," Espinosa muses in "The Silence of the Rain.")

So how to celebrate a sleuth in Rio?

Garcia-Roza said that he never intended to write socio-political pamphlets, or even to comment on Brazil. He named his inspector after his favorite philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch rationalist whom Garcia-Roza called "the most ethical of all the thinkers." Wishful thinking? Not at all. "Not so long ago, Brazil was under military rule and the police did the bidding of the dictators," the novelist said. "Now I see police want to hold their heads up high. Like everybody else, police also want to be loved."

Espinosa was inspired less by crack crime-busters, like Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, and more by the likes of Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith's disturbing private eye who understands the criminal mind as an enigma that may never be fathomable. In our long conversation, Garcia-Roza highlighted Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man of the Crowd," in which Poe's nameless narrator tracks an inscrutable old man, searching for signs of crimes buried in "the worst heart of the world."

Garcia-Roza's latest book "A Dangerous Place," published in 2014, has Espinosa intuiting a crime from the guilty fantasies of a retired literature professor who compensates for his faulty memory with homicidal hallucinations.

The novelist may be chasing an enigma himself. Having never met a detective before he embarked on his writing career, he called a lawyer friend, who took him on the night rounds of Rio's busiest precincts. The initial reception was chilly: "Here we were, two old guys hanging around the police station, asking questions in the small hours," he said.

Now he counts police detectives among his most enthusiastic readers. It's not surprising that they would be drawn to the bookish, upright detective who solves crimes not with gunplay or fancy forensics, but through soul-searching conversations with witnesses and strolling about Copacabana like Kant on a constitutional.

"Espinosa is no superhero, but he's competent and decent," Garcia-Roza said, adding, "like any police inspector can be." At last, Brazilians have a cop they can warm to, if only on the printed page.

(Corrects description of ranking of Rio state residents' trust in police in ninth paragraph of article published Sept. 22. It is among the worst, not the worst, in the country.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net