Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
One bright Sunday on the banks of the Paraguay River in lowlands Brazil, the narrator witnesses the fatal crash of a small plane. He finds a kilo of cocaine in the dead pilot's backpack which he pockets. Thus begins a long slide into dark and dangerous deeds he never before would have considered.
The term 'noir' is bandied about a lot nowadays as a synonym for crime fiction in general, or any type of darker, non-cosy crime, at least. But noir fiction (or 'roman noir') was traditionally a literary sub-genre somewhat akin to hardboiled detective tales, but centered on someone other than a detective.
In 'noir fiction', whether it was a victim, perpetrator, witness, or suspect, the 'hero' would often be self-destructive, trapped in no-win situations by both a corrupt system and their own failings. Think James M Cain more than Hammett or Chandler, or some of the novels of Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, and others.
With The Body Snatcher, acclaimed Brazilian author Patricia Melo delivers plenty of that good old-fashioned pure noir. Her narrator is a bit of a loser, who lucks upon a tragedy and in a snap decision decides to improve his own life rather than calling the police. After all, who could it hurt?
Unsurprisingly, things don't go well.
The set-up for this tale of a 'hero' falling is a familiar one: a pretty ordinary man stumbles over a crash in a remote area and finds no survivors but does find something of life-changing value. Can he get away with taking it for himself? In this case its a large amount of high-grade cocaine, rather than a suitcase full of cash or other valuables. But Melo delivers more than just A Simple Plan transplanted to the Bolivia-Brazil border. The former screenwriter expertly draws us in to the sultry and stifling world of the region, the environment and the people - rich and poor of the region - a place where survival is the highest value and decency seems to corrode in the humidity.
After taking the cocaine for himself, the narrator later learns the pilot's body was washed away by the time the wreck was discovered. Juggling a girlfriend who works for the police with an amateurish side business selling his windfall baggie by baggie on the street, he decides to use his inside knowledge of the crash to his advantage, looking to make even more money off the grieving family. How much would they pay to recover their beloved son's body for burial?
Distilled like that, the narrator comes across like a bit of a scumbag, and there's certainly plenty of evidence to back up that view. But like the noir masters of the past, Melo does a nice job creating a narrative drive in The Body Snatcher where readers are drawn in by her skill, so that we want to follow along even if the lead character is pretty dis-likable or lacking in moral compass. He's not an evil man, perhaps not even a bad one, just an ordinary guy who gets caught up in something and whose own self-interest overwhelms any thoughts for others as the hole gets deeper and deeper.
Fans of classic noir will likely enjoy The Body Snatcher, which seems a good example of the form. The story has a grittiness and griminess to it, where everyone involved is corrupt or corruptible, a little or a lot. For those more used to other types of crime, it could be a bit jarring in parts, style or perspective-wise, but Melo has an adroit touch for pared-down prose, and there is plenty of action to keep the pages turning. Overall I found it to be a tale that I admired as much as enjoyed.
Craig Sisterson is a journalist from New Zealand who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 140 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson