Crime writing: Turning fact into fiction

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25 June 2021
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Author Joe Thomas describes how real-life events create the backdrop for his São Paulo-set quartet
Crime writing: Turning fact into fiction Images

I am a crime novelist interested in fiction based on fact, inspired by true stories of structural inequality. My fiction addresses the discourses of power and the specificity of crime, why something happened precisely where it did, and is an attempt to illuminate the reasons why.

I am the author of a quartet of standalone but connected novels set in São Paulo, where I lived for ten years – Paradise City, Gringa, Playboy, and Brazilian Psycho. I have also published Bent, a historical crime novel set in Soho in the 1960s and behind the lines in Italy during the Second World War, based on the life of war hero and notorious detective Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor, who was in the SAS with my grandfather.

My latest novel, Brazilian Psycho, is an occult history of the city of São Paulo from 2003 – 2019, told through the lens of real-life crimes. It reveals the dark heart at the centre of the Brazilian social-democrat resurgence and the fragility and corruption of the B.R.I.C economic miracle; it documents the rise and fall of the left-wing – and the rise of the populist right.

The novel features the chaos and score-settling of the PCC drug gang rebellion over Mothers’ Day weekend, 2006; the murder of a British school headmaster and the consequent cover-up; a copycat serial killer; the secret international funding of nationwide anti-government protests; the bribes, kickbacks and shakedowns of the Mensalão and Lava Jato political corruption scandals.

Brazilian Psycho is a work of fiction based on fact. Much of this fact is recognisable. I lived in São Paulo for ten years; this experience accounts for much of the information, and many of the anecdotes, in the novel. Friends, colleagues, associates, and contemporary media outlets all informed the writing of the novel, directly and indirectly.
But why blend fact and fiction and how best to do it?
In the author’s note to her epic French Revolution novel, A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel writes: ‘The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.’
In Brazilian Psycho, the more outlandish political events, the most shocking violence, the most brazen corruption scams are all real, or based very closely on real-life incidents. It has always seemed to me that real life offers the best structural and societal models around which to thread a fictional narrative. Crime is political, I think, and more politics is criminal than we’d care to admit.
There’s the old adage: ‘You couldn’t make it up.’
More and more, I’m beginning to think that you shouldn’t.
Just a few of the facts that appear in Brazilian Psycho:
• Brazil records the highest figures in the world of violence against women and the LGBTQ community. The acts of violence and abuse that open the novel are based on similar acts that took place around the time of the election in 2018.

• During the Mothers’ Day weekend unrest in 2006, over one hundred and fifty people were killed, many in score-settling murders carried out by the Military Police and the criminal gang the PCC.

• Francisco de Assis Pereira, The Park Maniac, is a notorious, real-life, Brazilian serial killer.
• The Mensalão and Lava Jato political corruption scandals are the biggest Brazil has ever seen. While the plot lines in the novel concerning the scandals and the election of Bolsonaro are fictional, the alleged links are explored in great detail elsewhere.
When I first arrived in South America, I found the stereotype of corruption inevitable, quaint, almost, certainly foreign. I paid what amounted to a legal bribe to expedite my papers; the granddaughter of São Paulo’s most notorious Mayor was taken out of my History class to be told he’d been arrested, alongside her father. Now I look back, from a United Kingdom defined by Tory sleaze, cash for contracts, duplicitous nationalism, division, incompetence and tragedy, and I think –
What arrogance, what naivety, to have held that opinion at all.
Part of the work I did for Brazilian Psycho was about learning how to present this context, and without being overly expositional. Fiction, and the stories of fictional characters that intersect with this context, offers a compelling form.

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 Brazilian Psycho by Joe Thomas is out now in hardback by Arcadia

 

Read more about the importance of creating place in crime fiction, with Hull Noir's Nick Quantrill, author of the Hull-set Joe Geraghty novels.