Alone in the Crowd by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza is the seventh book in his Inspector Espinosa mystery series; set in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it ticks one more title off my list for the 2014 Global Reading Challenge.
I’d been looking forward to book one in the Inspector Espinosa series, The Silence of the Rain, ever since I read the review at The Game’s Afoot , but book seven, Alone in the Crowd, was the only Garcia-Roza title available at our local library, so here we are…
…and here’s how the story goes:
When an elderly, widowed pensioner is killed by a bus not far from Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana police station, her death would surely have been written off as an unfortunate accident, save for the fact that the old woman had been to the station not more than an hour before she died, asking to speak with Chief Inspector Espinosa… and when Inspector Espinosa subsequently learns that some bystanders at the scene share a vague suspicion that the old woman was pushed (though no-one actually witnessed this), he decides to have his team re-trace the woman’s movements before and after her visit to the police station.
What evolves is a police procedural with a psychological bent… along the lines of a Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novel, but more cerebral.
In fact, Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa reminds me of Martin Beck, though I can’t say as I ‘like’ Espinosa nearly as much as I do Beck, possibly due to the fact that I devoured all ten of the Martin Beck mysteries, one after the other, getting to know him and his police team quite well, while I’ve just barely been introduced to Inspector Espinosa.
No, I’m not ready to add Espinosa to my moody sleuth list, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. Aside from a few quibbles, I found Alone in the Crowd to be a compelling and thought-provoking read.
It didn’t surprised me to learn that Garcia-Roza is a retired academic, formerly a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and widely acknowledged for his scholarly writings on Philosophy and Psychology. (Garcia-Roza named his detective in honor of the philosopher, Spinoza.)
From an interview at absolutewrite.com I learned (paraphrasing Garcia-Roza’s words) that Inspector Espinosa is not a hero, nor a ladies man; he’s a middle-aged public employee, somewhat solitary, a man who might be your neighbor. However, though a romantic at heart, he has a critical mind and feels he’s an eccentric in the police world, out of place in general; Garcia-Roza refers to his Brazilian police detective as “a contradictory common man.”
Above all, Garcia-Roza emphasizes, Inspector Espinosa is an ethical man, which apparently goes against the negative conception of Brazilian police which has persisted since the military regime some decades ago. It was Garcia-Roza’s stated intention “to create a character that provided the image of an ethical policeman, not as a utopian ideal but as a real possibility.”
Another writer who took up crime fiction in his late fifties, Petros Markaris, also spoke of creating a detective who was a ‘common man’, but whereas Markaris’ objective in turning to writing his Costas Haritos mysteries was to explore the social and political realities of contemporary Greece while keeping within the genre of the crime novel, Garcia-Roza’s stated objective is explore human thought, attitudes and behavior, something he talks about in the AARP’s on-line magazine:
All my books are considered crime and mystery, but these categories are only a comfortable way for me to explore not the question of the crime itself but the larger question of what brings someone to commit a crime. Although the whodunit concerns Inspector Espinosa, it isn’t my main concern. Edgar Allan Poe has a phrase I like a lot, and it’s the epigraph of Alone in the Crowd: “The essence of all crime is undivulged.” That is, what interests me most is not just the crime, but the people implicated in the crime, the human complexity in cases when people who aren’t criminals are led to the extreme of killing someone.
True to Garcia-Roza’s intention, Alone in the Crowd explores human complexities within an intriguing story concerning elusive memories which prove to have complex and sinister connections to Espinosa’s past, memories that lead him on a psychological journey that raises disquieting questions at every turn.
But no more about the story… let’s assess Garcia-Roza’s detective.
To sum him up, Inspector Espinosa is in his late forties, lives alone in the same neighbourhood where he grew up, has a marriage and a child somewhere in his past, reads a lot, collects books, enjoys good food, but tends to eat frozen dinners and take-out most of the time… all traits fairly common-place among fictional detectives.
So it is Espinosa’s eccentricities, his philosophical musings and his singular habit of wandering aimlessly about Rio de Janeiro, lost in contemplation, daydreaming, or rummaging through distant memories, which set him apart from other fictional detectives.
My take on Inspector Espinosa is that he’s as melancholy as any moody sleuth on my list, and given to deep philosophical musings, which one Goodreads commenter points out are a “Brazilian tendency”.
I didn’t know this about Brazilians, but I’m prepared to take it as truth. Espinosa muses about everything from whether his recent thoughts of eliminating dinner from his daily routine in favour of a lighter repast might be a degenerative sign of aging, to whether or not his long-time lover and her beautiful friend are playing sexual mind-games with him. I find the former almost endearing, the latter not so much.
One of my quibbles with Alone in the Crowd is that Espinosa perhaps lives too much inside his head; his observations of his own thoughts as he ponders the intricacies of the central mystery tend to be enlightening, drawing one into the story, however, when he exhibits this same propensity to observe and comment on his thoughts and actions while engaged in intimate relations with his lover, it feels uncomfortable and distancing… at least I found it so.
In retrospect, I believe Garcia-Roza’s intense focus on his explorations of human psychology within the story may be partly responsible for my somewhat tenuous engagement with his Inspector Espinosa. With the narrator relating Espinosa’s thoughts, it feels as if Espinosa is perpetually watching himself, observing his own thoughts, but as a ‘distanced’ observer… if that makes any sense. As a result, I found it difficult to empathize.
But aside from that, other than a few coincidences that stretched my suspension of disbelief, the story kept my attention through to the end, so I am looking forward to getting to know Inspector Espinosa better, starting with book one.
You can read a sample of Alone in the Crowd at Amazon.com