This story is told by a man, never identified, recently relocated to Corumba in western Brazil, close to the Bolivian border. The chance acquisition of cocaine provides a financial opportunity, but an attempt to capitalise ends in disaster, with Bolivian drug-dealers threatening dire consequences if he doesn’t come up with hard cash.
The only way he can see to get himself and girlfriend Sulamita out of their difficulties and into a better life is to sell the body of the pilot, yet to be found, to his wealthy grieving parents. Sulamita is a policewoman and can help set up the plan, but her boyfriend is falling apart, and a successful conclusion to the scheme looks doubtful.
The first-person narration places the reader squarely in the place of the protagonist, who, while well-meaning, is easily led and ever preoccupied with his own predicament. His woes include a thoughtless slap in Sau Paulo, which lead to a suicide, his affair with Rita, the wife of his cousin Carlao who encouraged him to move in with them in Corumba, and his thoughtless employment of his friend Moacir to dispose of the drugs, with terrible results.
By the time the plan involving a cadaver is formulated, the hero’s head is in a mess. Rita is pregnant and claiming he is responsible. He has secured a job with the pilot’s parents as a driver and is witness to the mother’s distress at her inability to recover her son for burial. This resonates strongly, as his own father disappeared and the lack of certainty about his fate haunted both him and his own mother.
The narrator’s situation leads him to speculate on the nature of good and evil: ‘I finally understood that kindness is learned with great difficulty…we are born with evil ensconced within us like a dormant virus only waiting for the moment to emerge. Otherwise, how to explain …(how) two good people could act so horribly?’
The equation is easier to understand in the context of place; a land of extremes of wealth and no safety net for the poor, where corruption is endemic to both civil society and the judicial system, and no relief available from the enervating heat. But it is true in any society that good intentions butter no parsnips, as they say.
The writing is certainly good enough to create a believable picture, and the descent of the subject into a nightmare of betrayal of every decent impulse becomes increasingly fascinating. Despite the dark subject the book is full of vitality.
Written by one of the biggest names in Brazilian crime fiction, Melo’s eighth novel, The Body Snatcher, takes readers to Corumbá, a small town in Pantanal, which borders Bolivia. The narrator, a depressed telemarketer who just lost his job, witnesses a plane crash on the banks of the Paraguay River, finding a kilo of cocaine next to the pilot’s dead body. What could be a thriller about being on the wrong place at the wrong time becomes a tale of corruption and a deep dive into the complexities of the South American drug trade.
The Body Snatcher is a fine tale and well told. The book is a pleasure to read and it entertains the reader from the first page to the last. The story is simple and elegant. Like the thriller Heaven’s Prisoner’s by James Lee Burke, the plot of The Body Snatcher begins when a plane crashes into a lake. The hero steals drugs from the dead pilot, and the rest happens.
Although translated from Brazilian Portuguese, the prose in English is stylish and has impact. Both Burke and Melo know how to turn a sentence but the writing of the American is more elaborate and has deliberate invention. There is more mystery in the sentences of The Body Snatcher. The invention by the author feels natural and spontaneous. This means that the book is a fabulous read.
There are no contrived surprises or twists in The Body Snatcher. This is praise. The tension and delight are created by the route into crime and chaos that the hero feels obliged to follow. No character in The Body Snatcher agonises over their destiny. Brazil is too damaged by corruption and inequality for ordinary people to worry about ambition and purpose. They try to exist and survive. In a world controlled by the unseen powerful, individual responsibility is minimal. But human beings need others, and that makes life worse rather than better because they do more damage when the inevitable lies about weakness and failure happen. When the hero watches the TV News, he is consoled by it being irrelevant to him. He is reassured to know that there are calamities that do not affect him. The world is not great anywhere and that calms him.
If the hero has a name, it must have been used rarely. I only remember other characters giving him nicknames. Although powerless and reduced, the hero is obliged to make decisions. True to my own memories of Brazil he alternates between gentle self-justifying morality and sensuous sleaze. De-humanized by the casual cruelty and greed that defines others, the inadequate conscience of the hero leads him to a world where survival is as tragic as death. The errors of humans in The Body Snatcher are not the product of the wilful natures we find in ancient tragedy. Instead we have bewildered human beings making a mess. This is the modern world.
The male voice of the narrator is spot on accurate and a real accomplishment by a female writer. Melo manages to expose male weakness while avoiding doctrinaire condemnation. The humour in The Body Snatcher is dark and subtle and convinces the reader to continue. The language used in the book, though, has a purpose beyond mere style. The repetition and familiar adverbs create a sense of increasing pressure and few options. Often the dialogue is included in the same paragraph as narration. This suggests the confusion that exists inside the mind of the hero.
The marvellous atmospheric first chapter of book begins with the sentence, ‘We flounder in the heat.’ The reader will finish The Body Snatcher and have the satisfaction of knowing what Melo means.
Crime Time on Body Snatcher. Melo gives a hard-line Brazilian kick to an old crime novel scenario: man finds a dead body alongside a large cache of high-quality cocaine and, despite everyone who is not a character in a crime novel screaming, "Don't touch it," he picks it up and slips away, convinced the drugs will make his fortune or, at the least, clear his debts and set him up. Even having a policewoman as a girlfriend doesn't stop him. But then, this is as dumb-ass a guy as you can get. Knowing he must tell no one he uses a no-hoper that even he doesn't trust to help sell the stuff, bag by bag, on the streets. Meanwhile he takes a job with the dead man's distraught parents. When said no-hoper sets up a deal with Bolivian professionals our narrator goes along with it – rapidly finding himself owing the gang 50,000 dollars to be paid in two weeks. So he turns to his police girlfriend for help – despite two-timing her with his cousin's current squeeze. He has a plan, as Baldrick might say.
Astonishingly, Melo turns all this into a pared-down, fast-action and truly noir thriller with an ending you would not expect.
Themes of death and closure, domestic abuse, and self destructive behavior abound along with the age old question of what it means to be a good person, a definition that flows and changes as the action unfolds and the antihero wrestles with his own demons. The unnamed narrator’s internal dialogue and justifications together with his scandalous behavior, make this sordid tale a page-turner not to be missed.
Melo (The Killer) brings a distinctly Brazilian twist to the classic noir formula. Her unnamed narrator, a former telemarketer recently fired from his job in São Paolo, lives in a small town by the Bolivian border. As he’s fishing in a river one day, he witnesses a small plane crash into the water. Too late to save the dying pilot, he grabs the man’s backpack and runs. Of course, this is the first in a downward spiral of bad decisions, as the bag is full of cocaine. Guided by a dark inner voice, the hapless protagonist decides to sell the drugs, which soon gets him in over his head. Then he somehow ends up working for the dead pilot’s family as a driver. Assisted by his girlfriend, a local police officer working at the morgue, they hatch upon a macabre plan that they hope will extricate them from the mess with a tidy profit. The sly, existential narrative provides a revealing look at contemporary Brazil, police corruption, and the shadow side of man’s psyche. (Sept.)
Swiftly Tilting Planet:
“We think the devil comes in the back door, that he comes in with your enemies, but the truth is that we ourselves open the door to him the moment we trust someone.”
In The Body Snatcher, from Brazilian author Patrícia Melo, a tale of drug trafficking, police corruption, and blackmail, an unemployed former telemarketing manager who worked “in a boiler room in São Paulo” has retreated to the rural area of Corumbá near the Bolivian border. It’s hard to imagine the pinnacle of your professional career trapped in a boiler room but that’s life for our narrator. After leaving São Paulo, he lived with his cousin, a mechanic, until he started lusting after his cousin’s woman. He moved on yet again, and now, when the novel opens, he rents a room from the son of the chief of the Guató tribe and spends his days loafing around. He has a girlfriend, Sulamita who works for the police initially as an administrative assistant and then, during the course of the novel, she becomes head of a morgue. One day the narrator goes fishing and witnesses a small private aircraft crashing into the Paraguay River. He tries to rescue the pilot, but the young man dies at the scene. Also in the plane is a kilo of cocaine, and for the narrator, it’s just too good an opportunity to pass up….
With a kilo of coke to his name and no job, the narrator places his toe into the local drug trade and this soon escalates into full-blown trafficking. When things go wrong, the narrator finds himself in debt to Bolivian drug-dealer Ramirez. The book does an excellent job of showing how one bad decision leads to freefall.
You rob a cadaver. You hire some loser of an Indian to sell the blow you stole off the corpse. You fuck your cousin’s wife. You do that because you believe you can make a mistake, just one, just one more, and another, just one more little screw-up, and then return and go on with your path, your film, because the course of life continues there, static, waiting for you to screw up and return later.
With a lack of options, the narrator decides to approach the wealthy family of the dead pilot. It’s a macabre interest which would appear to be founded in some sort of guilt–although ultimately, guilt never really comes into play here. It’s puerile interest combined with self-preservation.
When you commit a crime like this the problem isn’t the others. Much less the reality. The evidence. The problem is you yourself. The slip-up you make when you’re asked a question. The imperfect actions. Your inappropriate reaction in a given situation. Not to mention the urge to confess that arises time and time again.
This novel is a slow burn read with the narrative gathering speed and sticking power as the narrator, nicknamed Porco by Ramirez, slides deeper into irreversible actions. The narrator has a linguistic tic of adding the word “over” to many of his thoughts. The linguistic tic, which isn’t guilt but a combination of common sense & justification, is finally explained at around the half way point:
You’re being stupid, over. That’s what my internal radio, which it was no longer possible to turn off, was saying. I would think and my private interlocutor, over, would counter, always trying to show me I was wrong, that goodness, over, like god, was a fantasy, that man was born bad and gets worse with time, and that I should forge ahead with my diabolical plan.
The Body Snatcher conveys the stinging, harsh bitter sense of the desperate side of Brazilian culture by positioning the lives of the extremely wealthy against the life of the dispossessed narrator who thinks a kilo of coke is the answer to his prayers, but instead it just opens the doors to more complications. Grabbing the coke, the narrator’s act of seemingly benign self-interest morphs into evil. As the narrator explains, “we are born with evil ensconced in us like a dormant virus only waiting for the moment to emerge.” While the narrator plays with the idea of guilt and conscience the author makes it clear that neither exist–or can afford to exist–in this tale of the baseness of human behaviour. Instead of guilt or conscience, the fear of being caught dominates the narrator’s actions, and the author allows the narrator to play with a sense of regret at having to behave this way while showing his callousness. What’s so interesting is the permeation throughout society of bad behaviour from the brutal, vicious drug dealer, Ramirez to the man who beats his pregnant wife. Everyone is pitted, in some fashion, in a battle for survival, and there’s the sense that in this culture of corruption, the only way to survive is to leave morality behind and join in.
In this dark tale, written by Patricia Melo and set in the Brazilian lowlands, our narrator is out fishing one day when he witnesses a small plane crash and finds the pilot dead. Instead of alerting the authorities he decides to pocket the pilot's personal items including cocaine and an expensive watch. This leads to a long spiral of corruption, with the narrator getting a job as the driver for the pilot's family, and the pilot's body going missing, much to their distress - but the busted drug deal means he owes a Bolivian gang a huge amount of money and must pay up by a certain date or be killed. He therefore battles with his conscience as he formulates a twisted plan to get the money.
This book is intricately plotted and, at 188 pages, very possible to read in one sitting. It is a unique story which contains dark humour mixed with touching moments in which the narrator has philosophical thoughts to himself about the morality of what he's doing, as well as reflecting on its own troubled past. Melo has created a narrator that is extremely realistic in his complexities, as well as an extremely well written story which is sure to grip you.
Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog:
Brazilian suspense writer, Patricia Melo, at long last releases her first book in the U.S, The Body Snatcher tr. Clifford Landers. This was one of my anticipated reads of the year. Melo writes about sex and violence in an urban setting and has published several titles available elsewhere. I heard about Patricia Melo several years ago from a reader. I read Lost World (2009) and was an immediate fan who went looking for her backlist. I loved her voice and style and wanted to read everything she ever wrote. She is really good an evoking a scary, depressing urbanized reality peopled with characters who dabble in criminality. In the world she creates, there’s homicides, drug trafficking, police corruption, blackmail and fraud. TL;DR version: The Body Snatcher is very good despite a slow start. The length of the story is short at 193 pages. My rating is a 4.5/5.
The novel’s told in first person by a nameless male narrator who witnesses a single-engine aircraft exploding and plunging into the Paraguay. The pilot turns out to be the son of a wealthy rancher who is also carrying drugs. As the narrator says in the first few chapters, ” I don’t know who said that a man by himself isn’t honest for long, but it’s the gospel truth.” He abandons the body, steals the drugs and the pilot’s wrist-watch. He generates complications that puts his life in danger which made up the nail-biting suspense part of the story.
Melo’s strength lies with her razor-sharp characterizations and setting. She doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue either (not in the two books I’ve read). She describes the city and the inhabitants of Corumbá, which is the third largest city in Brazil that sits close to the border of Bolivia, in such detail that you feel like you’re there. Like you can feel the sweltering heat. She’s good with suspense too which slowly increases as the narrator’s problems get more and more complicated.
The nameless narrator is a telemarketing manager who moves to Corumbá to escape his problems. In São Paulo he slapped a female employee and later fired by the general manager. Trouble seems to follow him no matter where he goes. Jobless and on the take, he sees an opportunity and goes for it. The first in a string of bad decisions. The irony is that he gets into even more trouble in Corumbá by angering the local mob and forced to blackmail an affluent family to save himself.
Several times I kept looking at how many pages I had left because of the action and suspense toward the end. I kept wondering how they were going to get out of this dire situation and if they would live to see another day. He and his girlfriend, who’s a cop working at the morgue, come up with a plan. It’s the execution of the macabre plan that drives up much of the suspense. I couldn’t stop turning the pages at that point.
The title of this story derives much of its inspiration from a Robert Louis Stevenson short story about grave-robbing with the same name, The Body Snatcher (free ebook copy from Project Gutenberg), published in 1884. One of the major, repetitive themes of Melo’s story is about closure or the lack of it. The cyclic suffering and hope for the unknown. “Stark death isn’t the hardest thing. Worse is mystery.” She has some great quotes in here and some social commentary on class and urban culture.
Melo doesn’t write stories that are black or white. They are many shades of grey just like in life. The fact of the matter is, she writes about characters you come to care about despite their criminality or background in crime. Skilled writers will do that. Give you three-dimensional characters with a moral compass that can go either way.
My take is that this was an entertaining story with translation that comes off without a hitch. This book earns my highest recommendation. Meaning that I will tell all my friends to buy her book and read it. My only criticism is the slow start but with a payoff at the end it more than makes up for that. My grade is a 4.5/5. If you’re looking to read more Latin American writers, she’s a good one to add to your list.
The Body Snatcher is priced at $9.99 and I know that’s kind of steep for a new writer. Try to see if your library has a copy and if not request it. I’d gladly pay that price or more to read her work. Patricia Melo is considered one of the emerging voices of Latin American writers. She is an author to watch.
Genre Go Around Reviews:
He lost his telemarketing job in São Paolo so he moved to Corumba on the Bolivian border. There he sleeps with Sulamita who keeps telling him to leave the small village to find work in the big city.
When he observes a plane crash into the nearby Paraguay River, he rushes to the site. Realizing immediately he cannot help or get help in time to save the life of the dying pilot, he steals a watch and a backpack filled with cocaine that he later tries to sell. When the police arrive, the body is missing. At the same time the man’s drug sales angers the local mob who demand full remittance for the cocaine he “purchased”. Abetted by Sulamita and a morgue’s employee, he blackmail’s the pilot’s affluent family who agree to pay him if he returns the corpse. Now all he needs is an unrecognizable body.
This brilliant Brazilian corruption crime caper stars an antihero who’s spiraling out of control escapades lead to a series of misadventures to the audience’s reading pleasure. Fast-paced from the start, the tremendous Body Snatcher will have fans seeking other works by Patricia Melo (see The Killer and Lost World).