September 08, 1986 12:00 PM

by Rubem Fonseca

Fonseca’s first book to be published in English is a brutal murder mystery set in Brazil. It starts out in the familiar Sam Spade style, except that the hero, who is known as Mandrake, is a lawyer instead of a private eye. People bring him their troubles. It ends up as a complex, multicharacter exploration of Rio’s underbelly—with drug-ridden orgies, hit men, political corruption, incest and insanity in one eminent family. A couple of prostitutes are killed: The murderer has carved the letter “P” on each face. A man from a socially prominent family comes and asks the lawyer to find a mysterious videocassette. Then one night Mandrake goes home to his apartment and finds two men waiting for him. They ask him for the tape, and when he says he doesn’t have it, they stab him and abuse his girlfriend. When Mandrake recovers, he goes all out for revenge—the killers, part of a powerful drug ring, have become the objects of his obsession. The novel takes a curious turn when it dips into the past to explain the strange family history of the master villain, a man of vast wealth and eccentricity. Another bad guy—a black dwarf who talks compulsively—shows up, too. The meticulous details of knives and how they are used are guaranteed to make a reader squirm in discomfort, but Fonseca, who has a law degree and is a major literary figure in Brazil, tells his fantastic horror tale with stylish originality. (Harper & Row, $17.95)

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