On returning back to his room in the Hotel Brasil, a run-down boarding house, Candido discovers the headless body of one of the other guests, a gemstone trader. While the odd assortment of other residents - including the owner, the janitor, a journalist, a political aide, a cross-dressing transformista, a prostitute-turned-pimp, and a cleaner who dreams of becoming a soap opera star - insist that the killer must have snuck into the hotel, the police are of the view that one of them must have committed the crime. Nobody, however, will admit to the deed and the police have no convincing evidence. Under pressure to solve the case, the detective arrests one of them, but then another guest is slain in an identical manner. In the meantime, Candido, an editor for a publishing house and a friend of homeless children, has discovered love but also been drawn into protecting a child from rogue cops who has escaped from a brutal orphanage.
For me, Hotel Brasil was as much an allegorical tale about the state of Brasil as a country as it was a murder mystery. As with Alone in Berlin, where each floor of the house represented a different social group in wartime Germany, each resident in the Hotel Brasil represents a different constituency and varying social ills, and the murder case and travails of Candido, the central character, reveal the ways in which Brazilian society is structured and run. When taken in that context, it’s a fascinating literary tale of social inequalities and divides, corruption, and morality, with a glimmer of hope running throughout. In this sense, it is not a conventional murder mystery and those readers expecting such might find the tale not quite to their taste. I thought the structuring of the text was cleverly done and the prose was engaging and often witty in subtle ways. And despite its literary sensibilities, Betto does keep the reader guessing as to the identity of the murderer until the very end. A book I’ve been thinking about a fair bit since finishing.