Memories and Childhood Trauma in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Riza’s Alone in the Crowd (2007)

Alone in the Crowd

‘She might have witnessed some crime, she might have known some incriminating fact, she might have been threatened…’

All we do know at the beginning of the novel is that Laureta Riberio, an elderly woman, has been run over by a bus, 30 minutes after trying to speak to policeman, Chief Espinosa on business unknown. Sceptical of coincidences, Chief Espinosa (which is Spanish for thorny) decides to look into the matter, especially since witnesses reported that Laureta seemed to have been propelled forward in front of the bus rather than falling or tripping over. Chief Espinosa, along with his subordinates, Inspector Ramiro and Detective Weber, begin by looking into her movements on that fatal day and Chief Espinosa is surprised to find a vaguely familiar childhood face. This blast from the past causes Espinosa to ruminate on his past and his childhood in particular, which leads to the uncovering of even less clear childhood traumas from 30 years ago. This novel is not a how or who dunnit, as the prime suspect is identified early on in the story and some of the narrative is written from his perspective. It becomes clear that they have been stalking Espinosa, who has been their childhood idol for many years and a creepy atmosphere is successfully built up by the way our stalker has invaded Espinosa’s privacy and personal life, whilst strongly emphasising to the reader how much they think they have in common.

Our suspect fits the profile of a potential psychopathic criminal, quite easily:

‘There’s no doubt he’s weird. He’s like a robot, an automaton, loose in the streets of Rio de Janeiro.’

A loner with no friends (and not caring to have any), living in his mother’s house, alone since she died suddenly the previous year, his only interests are a rigorous fitness regime, watching our series sleuth Espinosa and walking alone in crowds, busier the better. Probably the only person in fiction (or real life for that matter) who actively enjoys rush hour crowds on subways.

How Espinosa's suspect likes to spend his free time...
How Espinosa’s suspect likes to spend his free time…

A fundamental element of how this case progresses and for that matter how this case is even created in the first place, is the clarifying of Espinosa’s memories, which is a process that occurs in stages during the majority of the novel. It is these memories which provide a motive and also reveal other potential crimes which the police try to fathom out to see if there is a connecting pattern. The memories centre on the suspicious death of a young girl, a part of the developing case which troubles Espinosa the most, since it happened in his neighbourhood and may have involved children he was friends with. Combined with this there is also the concern that there may not even be a case to solve and that Espinosa’s own anxieties are obscuring his impressions of the past:

‘You’re haunted by the ghost of your childhood, but you’re also feeling stalked by a ghost today… you’ve told me two ghost stories. In neither of them can you assure me that a murder took place, and in neither of them do you have a murderer… how do you know they were murdered? What’s haunting you about these stories?’

‘The fact I can’t distinguish between my real memories and the memories that are superimposed on the real memories and hiding them.’

However as the police begin to piece together all the events (spanning several decades), which led to Laureta being run over by a bus (making this much more of a why dunnit mystery), the painful influence a child’s upbringing can have on them is revealed along with showing that the most unlikely people are capable of criminal behaviour. Yet our suspect has plans of his own. These mainly concern his final killing, Espinosa. Espinosa plans to use himself as bait to catch this killer, who will most likely remain free otherwise, but in this battle between detective and criminal, stalker and stalked who will live to tell the tale? Has Chief Espinosa underestimated his target? Only a dramatic ending will tell…

Interspersed between the criminal investigations, there is a romantic subplot/ triangle concerning Espinosa with his long term girlfriend Irene and her friend Vania. Personally I don’t think this hugely added to the plot and could be removed without affecting the criminal investigation. Despite the fact this subplot was written well and helped to flesh out Espinosa’s character, I think it came across as more as a distracting tangent than a fundamental part of the book. Consequently, I think this was a less successful part of the book.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia- Ruiz is the first Brazilian author that I have read and also my first South American author I’ve read for a really long time, since Argentinian author Pablo De Santis’ The Paris Engima (2007). Something which I think came across really well in the novel was the setting; Rio de Janeiro, in particular the Copacabana area. Rio de Janeiro is not a city I know a lot about and I felt Garcia-Ruiz presented it in a very vibrant way and in some respects the setting, e.g. Espinosa’s local neighbourhood, is essential in him remembering his past. The more criminal side of the city also creeps into the narrative from time to time to assert its presence with drug traffickers imposing “curfews” on neighbourhoods and getting into conflict with the police. Perhaps the strongest element of the novel is the developing relationship between Espinosa and the criminal and the changing power they have over each other. Moreover, it was interesting to see how their perceptions of each other evolved or remained static as the story unfolded.

Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, which does feature in the novel at several points
Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, which does feature in the novel at several points

Rating: For the writing style I would give 4/5, as it is really well written, but I think what let it down slightly was that by its very nature, a why dunnit, there was a lack of mystery, as I could anticipate and predict the information the police were likely to find, meaning overall I would give this book 3.5/5.

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  1. Yep. You nailed why I can’t even finish his books but the plan to give him another try. I’m a big fan of Brazilian writer Patricia Melo. I read “Lost World” a few years back and was blown away. It’s a sequel to “The Killer” but I didn’t read the former and didn’t feel lost. Her books are raw in emotion and very dark. I’m reading her newest release in the U.S (her first official release in the states) by Bitter Lemon Press, “The Body Snatcher” in a few weeks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s funny you should mention Patricia Melo and her book The Body Snatcher, as Guy Savage, another reader of my blog (on my review of The Decagon House Murders) just mentioned today that he was reading the same book. Makes me feel like I ought to investigate this author and give her go. What sort of detective novels does she write?


      • She doesn’t write detective novels that I’m aware of…in “Lost World” the featured protagonist was a former contract killer. Her characters tend to be criminals but with some redemptive characteristics. She writes about the cartels, corruption and such. Very gritty.


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