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Shelf Awareness: "Brace yourself for a jawdropper ending."

Date: Sep 3 2013

"What defines a city is the history of its crimes," Alberto Mussa writes in The Mystery of Rio, and for every city there is a defining crime that could happen only there.

On a Friday the 13th in 1913, the personal secretary to the president of the Brazilian republic is found dead in the House of Swaps. This legendary mansion in Rio de Janeiro is the sex clinic of Miroslav Zmuda, a researcher into the physiology of coitus, and secretly also houses a magnificent brothel where the nurses double as prostitutes. The victim has been discovered tied to the iron bedposts and strangled, gagged and blindfolded. Last seen with him was Fortunata, a beautiful young woman who came to the brothel a virgin and has now vanished, leaving her gold earrings with a 100-year-old sorcerer who haunts the cemetery and never lies.

The police department's dashing fingerprint expert, the attractive and  ambitious Sebastiao Baeta, is determined to solve the mystery. He is an internationally renowned forensic investigator--and a regular patron of the House of Swaps, where he and his wife attend couples night. Baeta is a ladies' man fiercely jealous of Fortunata's brother, Aniceto, who casts an almost supernatural spell over any woman he desires, even Baeta's devoted wife.

Compacting Brazilian lore into heavily loaded sentences, Mussa's prose mimics the earnest thoroughness of police report evidence. The roots of the murder reach hundreds of years back to the birth of Rio out of a desecrated cemetery. Baeta's search for the murderer leads him through dozens of curios and horrors, including a witch walled alive into the Imperial Palace, a mass grave of sailors disturbed in the cemetery, women given in marriage to the best shark hunters, the jealous competition between police districts, macumba rites, secret passageways, a pirate with 5,000 men and the lost treasure map of Lourenco Cao.

Mussa knows every Rio street--and savors them by name. His characters wade through a celebration of his beautiful, dangerous city of glorious extremes. One story leads into another, with several more embedded along the way, told by an endearing historian who can't resist any temptation to tell you his own opinions on the art of the mystery novel. Brace yourself for a jawdropper ending you have never, ever, ever read before, in a concoction that could only happen in Rio.

--Nick DiMartino

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