The existential cop

December Heat by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza follows a bookish policeman’s trip into the urban underbelly of Rio de Janeiro


December Heat
Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
2003, Picador
273 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

DECEMBER HEAT is a skilfully crafted tale of solitudes and survivals in an urban environment populated by those whose lives count and those who exist merely to be used then discarded.

Originally published in Portuguese as Achados e perdidos (which translates as Found and Lost), Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza weaves a plot as complex as a game of chess. He depicts lost individuals longing for human contact at Christmas, but this season of goodwill is a world away from the picturesque scenes on the greetings cards of the northern hemisphere.

Garcia-Roza tells the tale of a Vieira, a retired police veteran who one hot December night drinks himself unconscious then wakes up to discover that his girlfriend – a prostitute – has been tied with his belt and asphyxiated and that his ID is gone. Vieira’s friend Espinosa is unexpectedly assigned to investigate what at first sight appears to be an open-and-shut case, save for the possible potential clues guarded by a street urchin.

Explosive atmosphere

The explosive atmosphere fashioned by Garcia-Roza makes December Heat an engrossing piece of crime fiction, and his ability to engender suspense has been compared to that of Raymond Chandler. His vivid and captivating images ensnare the reader in a vortex in which every twist through Rio de Janeiro is unexpected.

It is also evident that the author of The Silence of the Rain – in which Inspector Espinosa is also the unlikely protagonist – is intrigued by his own characters, ordinary people trapped in a grey existence who end up stumbling accidentally into the light. The bridge connecting Garcia-Roza’s beggars and prostitutes and Rio’s respectable citizens is that of everday honesty, kindness and humanity. Again Garcia-Roza constructs a portrait of a city where chaos surges and laps like a swollen river alongside the banks of cosmopolitan sophistication.

Garcia-Roza takes self-evident delight in crafting Espinosa as a non-conventional super-hero, yet one who is lucid and rational despite his oddly nomadic eating habits. In a world short on idealism, the bookish Espinosa is also clearly a man of principles – one of just a few remaining members of an endangered species.

By the end of the novel it has become clear that Espinosa’s reliance upon his imagination, honed by existential angst, is the best strategy it is possible to follow in Garcia-Roza’s Rio, not only for crime-busting but for personal survival – a curiously recurrent theme in Brazilian writing.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican journalist