JOE THOMAS on Finding inspiration on the streets of São Paulo

Written by Joe Thomas

Joe ThomasI lived in São Paulo for almost ten years, but it wasn’t until I came back to London that I started to write about the city.

The vibrancy, excitement, the daily grind of traffic and pollution, the vast, sprawling, hotheaded, concrete megalopolis seemed to me a fine subject for a novel. I wanted to make sense of the place, of my experience there, and it feels like I needed the remove of returning home. But how to tell the story of a city? Crime fiction is a perfect vehicle as it unites all levels of society, from the favela drug dealers, to the highest level politicians. You can strip away the layers of city in a crime narrative.

And as I thought about a way in, I realised I did not have to look very far for inspiration.


One thing about living in São Paulo is how quickly you get used to the normalisation of crime, the threat of crime. Driving is a good place to illustrate this: the winding up of your car windows when you stop; the jumping of red lights after a certain time of night; the constant checking that your doors are locked. It became clear to me that preparing for crime, or its prevention is the same thing as living with its threat; one way or another, it very quickly becomes a mundane part of your daily life. Everyone knows someone who has suffered some terrible experience.

São Paulo exists in a state of heightened paranoia that lends itself to massive gun ownership, distrust of the police, and armies of private security. Drive around any relatively wealthy area and you’ll find high walls ringed with barbed wire, doormen, security teams, and CCTV everywhere.

My own building has a clever little routine. When you drive into the garage, you must identify yourself at the bulletproof glass booth in which three or four of the seguranças sit. These guys are lovely and do more than just security. They run the building, taking barbeque bookings, organising events, helping with shopping and storage. However, they do do security. And car-jacking in Morumbi does happen. Here’s how:

A pair of thieves stops you at a traffic light, one hops in the back with a gun trained on your head. When you approach your building, they crouch down low and tell you they’ll kill you if you do anything suspicious. So you wave nonchalantly at the glass booth and ghost inside. Then, the thieves go from flat to flat stripping them of valuables, load up, and leave in the car in which they arrived.

It’s a clever scam, if a little high-risk. So, in our building there is a system. If you do happen to drive in with a couple of malandros hidden in the back, you’re supposed to (calmly) park in a special bay which the security guys have designated as a signal to them that you’re in trouble. Once parked there, I don’t dare think what happens next. I never even bother to find out which bay is designated as the signal. I live more in fear of parking in it by accident and being forcefully ‘rescued’ by the seguranças, than I do of an actual car-jacking.  


Gringa begins with a brutal interrogation and a murder; Paradise City opens with a bala perdida, a stray bullet. They’re more common than you might think.

Meet Bambino.

He’s one of the older men in the condominium where I live; he’s especially loud – burly, burned deep red, fifty-ish – and works in fashion. He likes to shock the wives of his friends and is an outrageous and insistent flirt. Outrageous in what he considers flirting to be – insulting women and then telling them he wants to sleep with them – and insistent in that no amount of discouragement will ever change this approach. He’s of Italian origin, but that’s not why he’s called Bambino. He’s called Bambino because that’s what he calls everyone else.

There is an interesting contradiction at the heart of his character. Despite his upper body bulk, bulbous drinker’s nose, thinning slicked back hair and skinny legs – in his unnecessarily tight trunks he resembles a hirsute Mr Toad – he floats about on the tennis court like Stefan Edberg, a natural talent unmatched by anyone else in the building. They all arrive at the court with racket bags, matching dri-fit shirts and shorts, expensive trainers, isotonic drinks. Bambino turns up in plimsolls, flowery swimming shorts – at once too baggy and too high – a vest, and carrying a heavy, grip-frayed racquet that might have been cutting edge in the late 1970’s. When I watch his drop volleys, sliced overheads, feints and angles, I always think that God must be playing some sort of joke: how could a man who so delights in vulgarity have so much grace?

There is a moment of epiphany and I suddenly understand properly something Bambino has been telling me almost every weekend morning since I’ve known him.

He leans close and whispers – loudly, so everyone can hear, ‘Pegei uma puta gostosa ontem’.

This, I originally thought meant, ‘I pulled a super hot woman last night’, and while I find it unlikely given his questionable looks and charm, he does have a certain something, so I smile and say the Brazilian equivalent of, ‘Nice one, Cyril.’

This, though, is a grammatical issue. The word puta translates as whore but it also serves an intensifier, e.g. ‘That was puta cool!’ ‘It is puta hot today in the sun.’ Gostosa can be both slightly coarse adjective (essentially ‘sexy’) and also noun (woman who is sexy). Naively, I believe that Bambino is using intensifier and noun. Turns out not. He is, in fact, using noun and adjective. So, for about five years, he’s been telling me stories about what I believed to be a series of interesting girlfriends. But weren’t.

And then Bambino is shot in the chest.

When he gets out of hospital I see him sitting by the pool in customary fashion, Speedos and lager. A little quieter, a little recalcitrant even, but basically the same. There are a group of friends and well-wishers surrounding him and he knocks them aside to embrace me.

‘Feel this,’ he says, taking my hand up to his chest.

Steady on, I think and then realise what he is doing.

‘It’s still there. Can you feel it? The bullet.’

I can. It is hard and lumpy like a growth. If you push firmly, you can trace the edges. It’s like someone has forced a bottle cap under his skin.

‘They weren’t able to take it out,’ he says, ‘without causing further problems. So.’

He laughs. Raises his can of lager.

‘What doesn’t kill you, eh?’ and blows a kiss at Selina, an attractive, kind woman who, mysteriously, has always put up with him, sunbathing near by and tut-tutting in mock consternation at his jokes and stories.

Everyone laughs and shakes their heads. Bambino.

He was hit by a bala perdida, a stray bullet. 9am and Bambino had been walking to work in Itaim, a respectable and desirable area of offices and residences, quiet streets and fashionable restaurants. Shots were fired; he felt his legs give way and warmth in his chest. His head spun and there was a sharp and nagging pain in his back. When he looked up, he saw his dead father talking to God. That’s the last thing he remembered before coming round in hospital.

He’s fine now, the bullet worn like a badge of honour, a greying lump of skin that doesn’t tan like the rest of him.

Thing is, I’ve been hearing rumours that it wasn’t a stray bullet at all.


Not long after this incident, one lunchtime at the British school where I work, I try to pop to the bank. The security guard stops me. No one is allowed out.

Turns out, the bank has been robbed about half an hour earlier and the two crooks are hiding somewhere in the neighbourhood. This is a posh neighbourhood, with spacious houses, foreign cars and private security booths on most corners. Later, I discover that the police only manage to catch one of the thieves. The other is shot dead by a student’s bodyguard. He was waiting around outside the school and noticed someone suspicious, pursued him, realised who it was and killed him. Shot him in the chest and head. A very professional job.

No one cares.

Most Paulistanos shrug it off, click their teeth and say:

‘Ah, menos um, ne?’ ‘Oh well, that’s one less, right?’



In both my novels, the favela Paraisópolis – Paradise City – features prominently. I lived very close to it, in Morumbi. About a third of the city’s population live in a favela, or slum, and are known as favelados. Favelas are self-sufficient communities of low-paid workers who cannot afford decent housing in a society that, unlike the UK, doesn’t provide social housing. Favelados suffer extraordinary prejudice, mainly due to the fact that criminal gangs and drug dealers have, historically, run the favelas. In 2012, the military police went into Paraisópolis – Operação Saturação – in an attempt to wipe out the drug problem through saturating the favela with a police presence, leaving hundreds for dead. This is a key theme of my novel Paradise City. It’s not just the drug dealers who suffer. Ordinary kids are caught in the crossfire by lost or stray bullets. Most of the time the favela is peaceful. The reality is of struggle and survival. The curse of poverty remains and, what shocks, is that I often think there are plenty of people in São Paulo who want to keep the favelados in this poverty trap. The most common occupation for women in Brazil’s favelas remains in domestic service, working as maids.

One Tuesday night, during the school holidays, I do something rash. I’ve been playing tennis and then head to the condominium bar to drink, eat a sandwich and read, when I am joined by Julião, a large, bald man in his fifties known for his prodigious capacity for alcohol. He looks like a cross between Shrek and Big Daddy. He is a good man with a good heart, but when drunk…let’s just say I’ve seen him  in the early mornings when I went down to the garage to drive to work, padding about barefoot with a can of lager, chatting to the seguranças, telling stories.

We talk and he quickly nails two or three bottles of beer – the tall, 600 ml type that you’d normally share. He tells a succession of filthy jokes and I try to keep up with his slurred and coarse Portuguese. At closing time, he wanders with me towards the lift.

‘Let’s go to the favela?’ he says.

‘Why?’ I ask, not really wanting to know the answer.

‘Another drink. I know people.’

I’m not sure. Middle class Brazilians have a deep distrust and fear of the favelas, especially, and not unreasonably, for me as a gringo.

Julião’s little excursions are well known and other friends of mine have been with him, vowing never again. But before I really know what I’m doing, I’m jumping into the passenger seat of his car and we stutter and shunt down the hill into Paraisópolis.

We’re in a tiny, poorly-lit street with a shop-front bar, mosquitoes buzzing around naked bulbs, crates of empty bottles of beer stacked up in the street. A couple of sullen looking men sit at rusting, beer-brand tables, not talking, raising their bottles and glasses of cachaça to the owner. They greet Julião with nods and look at me with undisguised surprise. I don’t fit in here. I have no idea where I am. I’ve driven through the favela once before, taking a short cut to work at seven o’clock in the morning and even then the maze – the warren – was confusing. Hills dip up and down, the houses lurching out at odd angles, lines of washing strung across the streets. Each house looks different, but the same. The same rough brick and corrugated iron, the same painted on house number, the same noises echoing out from the hollow walls, the same thick smells hanging in the heat like clouds.

The point about a favela is that you are in it. It’s a separate place from the city, a community, yes, but an alien one. There aren’t too many pale, reddened faces here.

We sit and Julião orders drinks. I am tense, my legs shaking, though everyone who passes seems to know him and he introduces me as O Gringão, The Big Gringo. It seems to satisfy them. I don’t have my wallet, just some loose change and I wonder if that is a good or bad thing. I want to trust Julião, but you never know with him – he’s created his own myth, and I can’t be sure how much of it is fiction.

After what feels like an extremely long time (measured by two beers between us) a group of very young women saunters by. They stop to talk to Julião and he makes them laugh, though I realise he is being pretty provocative. They examine me like an exhibit and raise their eyebrows, suck their teeth, slap hands. I find out later that they are prostitutes who come to dance Samba in the little, grotty garage bar opposite the condominium on Saturday afternoons. One nice thing about Julião – he doesn’t judge and will befriend anyone. A few young men in shorts and flip-flops pass by, calling out to the owner. They look a little more hostile. I try to reason with myself. Just how much influence does an old drunk really have? They eye me a little. I’m saying nothing, drinking too quickly to compensate. I tell Julião I need to leave, make something up about having an early start. It is already past two o’clock. He grunts something about a saideira, one for the road, but I know that he rarely just has one. I ask about a taxi and he laughs.

‘I’m not letting you go off on your own,’ he says.

I’m not reassured.

Another beer is ordered.

The young men are joking and laughing at something. I hope it isn’t me, but I can’t be sure. They’re speaking in a rough slang much of which I don’t understand. And I’m trying not to listen too carefully anyway. I’m trying to sink into the background, but it’s a bit like hiding a glowing light bulb under a thin sheet.

There is a light breeze. It’s that rare thing in São Paulo when the heat finally dissipates and the freshness is cool and comforting, like the dusk in summer in England. Here, you have to be up in the middle of the night to feel it. The houses that bend over us in the tight street, their irregular shapes jutting out at odd angles, corrugated extensions hanging low, seem to sway with the wind. There is a low, constant crackle of electricity in the wires strung criss-crossed above us, straining to carry the current around the Paraisópolis labyrinth.

The girls amble down the street and the young men swagger behind, laughing at them, flip-flops slapping on the bumpy road. I look at Julião. He smiles and punches me on the shoulder, kisses me on the forehead.

‘Embora,’ he grunts. Let’s go.

We throw some money on the table and there is a tense moment as Julião does a round of goodbyes at the bar, each one taking a little longer than I’d like. I stand awkwardly grinning, nod my own goodbyes. Julião’s car staggers up the road and into the condominium garage, and I pray he doesn’t park in the designated security bay.

Published by Arcadia Books, Feb 15 2018 Hardback £14.99

Read SHOTS' review by LJ Hurst here 

Published by Arcadia Books, Feb 16 2017 Hardback £14.99

Read SHOTS' review by Michael Jecks here

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