The Mystery Novels of L.F. Veríssimo

Crimes from pulp fiction books reenacted by a real murderer. A locked-room mystery disrupting a conference about Edgar Allan Poe. Members of a gastronomy club being killed one by one right after having their favorite dishes. These are just a few of the plots from L.F. Veríssimo’s novels. But what really makes them interesting to me are their narrative structures and the cultural artifacts that fuel them.

Luis Fernando Veríssimo, one of the most celebrated and prolific Brazilian writers, is mostly known for his hundreds of humorous short stories and newspaper columns, collected in dozens of books starting in 1973. He is the creator of some unforgettably funny characters, like the Analyst from Bagé (O Analista de Bagé), a gaucho psychoanalyst who mixes Freud with the roughness of the macho cultural values of the Pampas, and the Old Lady from Taubaté (A Velhinha de Taubaté), the last person who still believes what politicians say. Veríssimo also wrote and drew comic strips, and for a long time published daily columns on several Brazilian newspapers. (I once sent him a letter disagreeing with a point he made in one of his columns, and he was so kind to continue the conversation by writing a funny and nice public response in one of his next columns. But that’s a story for another time.)

Veríssimo also wrote a few crime novels, and they stand apart in their little murder mystery microcosm. The humor is still present, but sparsely and in a much darker tone. As far as I know, three of Veríssimo’s novels have been translated to English. The other two you will have to read in Portuguese.

The first novel is O Jardim do Diabo (The Devil’s Garden), originally published in 1988, and revised and republished in 2005. Estevão is a pulp fiction writer who lost a foot (one of the mysteries of the story) and now doesn’t leave his small apartment. He is visited by a a police inspector investigating a crime apparently inspired by one of Estevão’s books. The Devil’s Garden is probably the most complex of his novels in terms of structure, with the narrative blending together the narrator’s current reality, an episode of his past, the pulp novel he is currently writing, and a radio show played loudly by his cleaning lady.

O Clube dos Anjos (The Club of Angels, translated by Margaret Jull Costa for New Directions), originally published in 1998, is possibly Veríssimo’s best book. Daniel is a failed advertising man who still depends on his parents money to support his fine taste for food and wine. But now his club of gourmets (or, perhaps more appropriately, gourmands) is at risk of disappearing because the members are being murdered, one by one, after eating their favorite dishes. The whole story has a delicious air of decadence, both from the seemingly excessive importance given to the pleasures of the table and from the apparent willingness presented by the victims, as if they all felt guilty of something and accepted death as their punishment.

Borges e os Orangotangos Eternos (Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, translated by Margaret Jull Costa for New Directions), originally published in 2000, is one of my favorites. Vogelstein is an unimportant translator who goes to Buenos Aires for a conference about the work of Edgar Allan Poe and gets involved in a locked-room murder mystery. Trying to solve the crime, he partners with none other than the great Jorge Luis Borges, with some help from a police detective appropriately called Cuervo (Raven). For fans of Borges, or Poe, or detective stories in general, the narrative is a delightful puzzle of references where all the pieces fit together and the surprises don’t end until the last paragraph. There are also engaging conversations about literature, including this beautiful quote: “I always believed an experience at sea was essential to a great writer, and that’s why Conrad and Melville, and in a certain way also Stevenson, who ended his days in the South Seas, were better than all of us, Volgenstein. At sea a writer escapes from the minor demons and only faces the definitive demons.”

O Opositor (literally The Opponent but also, implied, The Opposable Thumb), originally published in 2004, is a story within a story. The narrator is a journalist visiting Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, to write an article about hallucinogenic plants. But he ends up meeting Jósef Teodor, a foreigner who is always drunk and claims to be a former assassin for hire at the service of the Meierhoff Group, the most powerful secret society in the world. Teodor’s tale, told in fragments when he is both willing and not too drunk, forms the center of the book, while the questioning of its veracity and the hunting of clues to confirm it make for an interesting frame. To complicate things a bit, the journalist has been sampling the hallucinogenics he is supposed to be researching, and got romantically involved with a woman who may be the daughter of one of Teodor’s victims.

Os Espiões (The Spies, translated by Margaret Jull Costa for Quercus Publishing), originally published in 2009, is a story about the relationship between literature and reality, disguised as a story about amateur spies who fail badly at their self-assigned mission. A small publisher receives the first chapter of a manuscript and, interpreting it as a call for help, builds a rescue team to travel to the author’s little town and free her from the presumed danger. As the investigation progresses and more chapters arrive in the mail, the plot thickens. The Spies starts with a quote by Giorgio de Chirico (inscribed in Latin on the frame of one of his self-portraits): “And what shall I love if not the enigma?” The love for the enigma, however, is not enough to solve it, and the eager but unaware spies end up facing the results of their misreading of the manuscript and of the situation.

These five novels form a cohesive group, with many elements in common. For example, all the stories are told in the first person by a narrator-protagonist who is a writer of some sort. Estevão, from The Devil’s Garden, is a pulp fiction author. Daniel, from The Club of Angels, is a failed advertising copywriter and a scribbler of stories of dubious taste about conjoined twins. Vogelstein, from Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, is a translator and wannabe writer. The unnamed narrator of The Opponent is a journalist. The narrator of The Spies, also unnamed but sometimes using Agomar as a pseudonym, is an editor at a small publishing house and author of an unpublished espionage thriller.

The five books also make important use of cultural references (usually to literature or visual arts), which in some cases are at the center of the plot. The Devil’s Garden uses pulp fiction stereotypes profusely, but also touches on Conrad, Melville, and other authors of sea stories. The Club of Angels has Shakespeare and King Lear metaphorically haunting the characters and literally being quoted by them. Borges and the Eternal Orangutans presents Borges as a character and offers an abundance of mentions to Poe, Lovecraft, Zangwill, and several other writers. The Opponent features the frescoes in the Orvieto Cathedral, painted by Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli, as a significant plot point. And The Spies provides a cornucopia of literary references, from the Greek classics (the damsel in distress is called Ariadne and the plan to rescue her is named Operation Theseus) to contemporary spy novels (the narrator idolizes John le Carré) and even suspicious scholarly connections (one of the characters gives a lecture on “The Neoplatonism in Dostoyevsky and Machado de Assis”).

If none of the above made you want to read Veríssimo’s novels, he has another one that doesn’t deal with crime mysteries but may arouse your curiosity: A Décima Segunda Noite (The Twelfth Night) retells the homonymous Shakespearean comedy with the plot transposed to a contemporary hair salon in Paris and narrated by a perky pet parrot who can quote John Lennon and Soren Kierkegaard.