The Mystery of Rio
What defines a city, the narrator tells us, is “the history of its crimes,” and, with that introduction, he proceeds to tell the story of one particular perfect murder that defines Rio de Janeiro. But the narrator, the reader discovers, is hardly reliable as both he and his wife were intimately involved in the circumstances surrounding the crime, a murder committed in 1913 in which the secretary to the president of Brazil was found strangled and tied to a bed at the House of Swaps, a secret brothel run by a doctor who runs a gynecological practice during the day and is obsessed by the mystery of female sexual desire.
In setting the crime in context, the narrator interjects information about other notable crimes and stories of pirates and priests and their hidden treasures in underground tunnels, witches and magical grave-robbing spirits, and, of course, the sexual liaisons that occur at the brothel. The story is ultimately about the awakening of forbidden appetites, jealousy, and the destructive machismo of two men competing to seduce each other’s previous conquests. Men and their attitudes toward women center the novel, and I found the female characters in the story were treated more as sexualized objects rather than interesting and well-developed people in their own right.
The metafiction elements of the book gave it a surreal sensibility that I enjoyed, but ultimately I found myself skimming over many of the contextual tales that had little to do with the crime in question. The book has won awards in Brazil, so perhaps readers more familiar with the country will find them fascinating rather than distracting.