Books: How to kill friends and influence people

In Praise of Lies by Patricia Melo trs Clifford E Landers Bloomsbury pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
'Why do you look so surprised? Every woman dreams about killing her husband." This is the thread running through the second novel by young Brazilian thriller writer Patricia Melo to be published in Britain. Like the first (The Killer, out two years ago), it takes a simple, if controversial, premise, then stretches and twists, investigates and pursues its terminally serpentine consequences.

The plot centres on Melissa, a herpetologist working in Sao Paulo's Municipal Serological Institute. We meet her in chapter one, feeding the inhabitants of the serpentarium with handfuls of baby mice and declaring her passionate interest in urutus, jararacas, cascaveis, jararacucus, surucutings, cotiaras - and for the truly riveting varieties of disease and paralysis and, ultimately, amputations and death agonies they can inflict. No surprises, then, when her dramatic accusations of her husband's violent tendencies start sounding warning noises reminiscent of the rattlesnake with which he comes to have an unpleasantly close encounter.

Melissa's first role, however, is dispensing information on her pets' venomous properties to the book's narrator, the hack crime-writer Jose Guber. He's in search of a nasty ending and a touch of originality to pep up his plots, otherwise looted from better - and better-known - writers. As Melissa gradually reveals the lucrative and criminal manifestations of her herpetological talents, Guber innocently tells her about his poverty and consequent need to plagiarise literary classics. "I took Melissa to the bookcase and showed her all the books I had copied, or tried to copy ... The Stranger by Camus; The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe; Double Indemnity by James Cain; The Man in the Passage by Chesterton; Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie ... The Human Beast by Zola."

Instead of a witty conclusion, Guber departs with a pet boa. It's the first stage towards his gradual accumulation of enough illicit snake serum to stock a large pharmaceutical company and enough death-defying experiences to furnish a lifetime's lousy thrillers. Plus a woman inclined to do more than dream of killing and collecting the life insurance on her husband - or rather, a succession of husbands, for Melissa has the instincts of a Henry VIII among women.

Quite who gets their fangs into whom is one of the themes entwined in a more and more labyrinthine plot. Ever since Adam blamed Eve and she sought to blame the serpent, crime has had a wriggling tendency to betray rather than bind its perpetrators. Guber's desirability as a husband increases in direct ratio to his bank balance. And his bank balance improves as he jettisons his jumbling of 20th-century literary classics to strike lucky with a series of banal self-help manuals which have the women and publishers of Brazil falling over themselves to get to their author.

Some of the wittiest elements in Melo's novel lie in Guber's increasingly desperate e-mailed attempts at convincing his editor that each preposterous murder story, turned around in under a week, will be a sure-fire success. Ironically, Melo's writing declines as Guber's takes off. Ever a disciple of the Brazilian psychological thriller writer Rubem Fonseca (allusions to whom litter the text), Melo struggles with the devoted secretary, the good woman who arrives to put Guber's life back on track, and can't really let go of the deadly fascination of the evil Melissa.

When Guber assumes a new identity as Joao Areira, his writing is no longer bad but bland. In leaving behind literary plagiarism, Guber/Areira assumes the entirely non- literary activity of manufacturing derivatives of a derivation, alongside the dozens of other New Age Brazilian authors busily cannibalising Dale Carnegie's discredited advice to produce mumbo-jumbo like The Symbiotic Dictionary of Professional Advice.

Once past the awkward masculine jokiness of exhortations to "Give Yourself a Hand", Melo seems to feel she has nowhere new to go, and her novel starts collapsing just as the real snake in the grass is about to be revealed. Perhaps this is because failure is always more interesting than success - certainly than the kind of success that Carnegie and Areira write about. The reader tends to agree with Guber in his first incarnation, drawn to write, as Hamlet puts it: "Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts / Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters; / Of deaths put on by cunning and forc'd cause", however inadequate he may be to the task, in literature if not in life. And the reader also feels some sympathy with Guber's batty mum, waging a campaign for the Lord Jesus and against local street traders through a megaphone, who breaks off to advise her son to stop reading imported rubbish on the grounds that "books do ruin people, you know."