Cover image for In praise of lies
In praise of lies
Melo, Patrícia, 1962-
Personal Author:
First U.S edition.
Publication Information:
New York, N.Y. : Bloomsbury : Distributed to the trade by St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
187 pages ; 21 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Written in the tradition of the classic American noir of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, In Praise of Lies is a brilliantly clever, fiendishly funny crime novel about a woman who raises poisonous snakes and the man who loves her enough to attempt murder....

Jose Guber is in love with a deadly woman. While writing his next crime novel, he is in search of a unique murder weapon, which is how he meets Melissa, a serologist who specializes in venomous snakes. Melissa becomes rather too interested in Jose's dastardly plots--unashamedly plagiarized from the classics: Chesterton, Poe, Dostoevsky, his editor none the wiser--and she especially likes the ones where diabolical women seduce and corrupt weak men. Melissa makes it clear that she would like to adapt one of the plots to dispose of her present husband, enabling Jose and Melissa to be together. But the course of true love and homicide does not always run smoothly, certainly not when the accomplice rattlesnake gets depressed and everything that can go wrong does go hilariously haywire. With sharp wit and impressive agility, Patricia Melo leads the reader into a teasing world of deviousness. Literary puzzles and comic swipes at book publishing trends are added pleasures in what is, above all, a glorious page-turner.

Author Notes

Patricia Melo is a screenwriter, playwright as well as a novelist. Her last novel, The Killer , won the Prix Deux Oceans in 1996 and the German Deutcher Krimi Preis in 1998. She lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Melo (The Killer) is a promising literary crime novelist, one of a new crop of Brazilian suspense writers that includes Rubem Fonseca. In her second book, she focuses on the career of Jos‚ Guber, a bottom-rung hack who rips off classic detective story plots and turns them into pulp fiction for a second-rate publishing house run by a philistine named Wilmer da Silva. Researching a plot involving death by snakebite, Jos‚ meets Melissa at a serology laboratory. Melissa, fervent about all things reptilian, soon becomes Jos‚'s lover, sealing her passion by giving him an illegal boa constrictor. Jos‚ knows Melissa is married, but what he doesn't know is that she is becoming rich defying Brazilian law and dealing venom on the black market. Convincing Jos‚ that her husband Ronald beats her (which is not true), Melissa persuades him to participate in her scheme to kill Ronald, with the help of a deadly jararaca. To her dismay, Ronald merely loses a leg, while distracted Jose loses his job. But his former boss's secretary, Ingrid, has always liked Jos‚, and she helps him find work as a corny self-help writer. When Jos‚ realizes that supportive Ingrid is more his kind of lady than the cunning Melissa, the spurned woman shows her fangs. Melo saturates her prose with literary references, effectively intellectualizing what is at heart a zesty suspense novel with a kinky, unpredictable murderess. Jos‚ as a "babe-magnet" is unconvincing, but he's hilarious when submitting his book "outlines" to Wilmer. Melo keeps the tale oscillating between morbid intrigue and hilarity, deftly skewering the publishing industry in the process. (Sept.) FYI: The Killer won the French Prix Deux Ocean and the German Deutscher Krimi Preis. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One I've always liked snakes, especially the poisonous varieties, but it was because of Melissa that I began frequenting the Municipal Serological Institute. When we were introduced, she was standing in front of the museum's artificial lake -- pretty, in a white lab coat and glasses, examining a ten-foot-long boa constrictor. We shook hands. `You'll like what I'm about to do,' she said.     One of Melissa's assistants immobilized the snake by grasping it with both hands just below the head. Next the snake was placed on the laboratory table. `She doesn't want to eat,' Melissa said, `it's the stress of captivity. Look, the poor thing has fleas.' Another assistant brought a rabbit in a small cage. With his help, using a pair of tongs as a lever, Melissa pried open the reptile's mouth. Then she took the rabbit from the cage and, in a quick move, broke its neck. `I always kill the prey before force-feeding,' Melissa said, introducing the dead rabbit into the boa's throat. `Ophidians don't eat dead animals,' she said, `but the prey's blood is still warm, so that's not a problem.' With her hands, Melissa squeezed the serpent's body, causing the rabbit to descend into the ophidian's stomach. `You can take it away,' she told the assistant.     `Come on,' Melissa said. `I'll show you the Institute. In the old days, this entire area was a forest reserve. Did you see the number of frangipani there are out there? In blossom time, everything around here has a wonderful smell.' We walked through the museum side by side, leisurely, and there was already something between us, threads, with her guiding the conversation and me observing the serpents in their vivariums. Melissa showed me her favorite, the desert viper, Echis carinatus . `When it comes to killing,' she said, `there's nothing better. Ninety per cent of those bitten die, even if they get the serum.'     We left the museum. The day was overcast, the sky dark. `I like this place,' Melissa said. `Look at these trees; that one there is over a hundred years old. Isn't it beautiful? What snake is the murderer going to use?'     `I haven't decided,' I said. `I know there are many varieties of toxins.'     `Yes, you can take your pick. There are necrotizing venoms, neurotoxic venoms, which paralyze the muscles. What is it you're looking for?'     I explained that I was in the initial phase of research for the book and that I didn't know yet, but the idea of death by asphyxiation appealed to me.     `It's a terrible way to die,' she said. `Some species of the genus Naja would be perfect. The problem is they don't exist in the Americas. If you want to use venom with neurotoxin, I suggest the corals. But you should know that accidents with coral snakes aren't very frequent; corals are timid and flee from man. That might cramp your story. We have to think about the place where the crime will be committed. Who are your victims?'     `Like I said,' I replied, `I'm just beginning.'     Thunder rumbled across the sky, then lightning. We didn't even have two minutes to dash back to the museum before the rain came pouring down.     Melissa got me a towel and I dried off. `You're going to catch cold in that wet shirt; I'll get you a coat.'     `No,' I said.     `You're going to catch a cold,' she insisted. She went to a closet, took out a large yellowed lab coat. `Put it on,' she said. `It belonged to a biologist who died last year, do you mind?' I didn't mind. I went into the bathroom, took off my soaked shirt, and put on the coat, which smelled of mothballs. `Fine,' Melissa said when I returned. `Would you like to see the mice?'      While we waited for the rain to stop, she showed me the area where the mice were raised. A room full of cages with pups smaller than my thumb. `From their mother's dug to the mouths of serpents,' Melissa said. `Every two weeks I toss a handful of them into the serpentarium.'     Before I left, she invited me to attend the talk she was giving the next day to personnel from public-health clinics in the interior of the state. `It's very technical and didactic,' she said. `It might help you with your book.'     I accepted. That was how we began. Chapter Two To: Wilmer       From: José Guber The Turk , or He Buried His Mother and Went Swimming , by Richard Higgins John Sayers, a good, simple and eccentric fellow, loses his mother and does not cry at the wake. (And he even drinks the coffee with cream that the caretaker at the chapel offers him.) A few days later he kills a Turk on the beach, for no reason. He is tried and convicted, not for having killed the Turk but for not having cried at his mother's wake. Wilmer, the story seems simple but it's quite complex. It has some very interesting details: the prosecution bases its entire case on the fact that John Sayers didn't cry at his mother's wake, to which he came with his hair wet. We'll do a gripping detective story that will show how absurd our judicial system is. Please give your quick OK. From: Wilmer       To: José Guber You are forbidden to write novels about eccentric weirdos who kill Turks on the beach for no reason. Haven't you read Memo 149? We don't kill Turks, blacks, Jews, Indians, children, maids, endangered animal species and the like. I also forbid you to write about any theme dealing with our judicial system. I want a different outline. Four months earlier, I was on the Internet researching African snakes, thinking about copying the plot of The Adventure of the Speckled Band for the Spitting Fire series, even though I found the story kind of boring, when I found a home page that interested me. It was Melissa's. `I am a member of the São Paulo Association of Herpetology,' she said, `and work at the Municipal Serological Institute. I have a collection that includes a true boa and a reticulated python. If you are interested in these animals, have questions, or desire information, please get in touch with me.'     I felt attracted by her photo, showing a serpent wrapped around her arm and a book in her right hand. Anyone with a book in their hand is always a hope. Short, straight hair, thick eyebrows -- I liked her. I sent a message asking for information about venoms. I explained I was a writer of detective novels who was writing a story in which the murderer used serpents as the weapon for his crimes. Melissa answered the same day, saying that the first thing she read in the papers was the police reports and that she could help me with information about snake venom, toxins, and poisoning in general. We made an appointment for the next day at the serpentarium in the Institute.     That night, at home, I was excited. I started reading two books, gave up on both in the first few pages, sat down, got up, turned on the TV, went to the living room, returned to the bedroom, rummaged through the bookshelves, sat down, ate ten apples, got up, took a hot shower, twenty minutes under the shower. Only then was I able to read. It wasn't easy to write my outlines. Sometimes it was necessary to read three or four books to find something. I enjoyed that, not writing -- I never liked writing -- I liked to lie in bed reading, drifting off and waking up minutes later, going back to my reading, I would read a little and sleep, sometimes I would dream about passages from stories, wake up, read a bit more, eat, sleep, the whole night like that, reading and sleeping, and eating chocolate, mixing it all together in my head, sometimes I would also note something down on the computer, that's how I worked.     Midnight. I warmed a cup of milk in the kitchen, got the medicine, and went to my mother's room. She was on her knees, head bowed, praying. Images of saints covered the walls. My mother hadn't been out of the house for more than two years, since Moisés, my older brother, died of leukemia. She asked if I had closed all the windows, locked the door, turned off the gas. She asked if I could buy her a megaphone. `What do you want with a megaphone?' I asked. It was to put next to the picture of Our Lord Jesus Christ, she explained. It had to be a really powerful one; she wouldn't place a cheap megaphone beside Jesus Christ. I promised her I'd buy one. I pulled the blanket over my mother and kissed her. As I was leaving her room, she asked me if I was keeping my promise not to stay up all night reading. I said I was.     `That's nice, son,' she said. `Those books were ruining you.' Chapter Three Urutus, jararacas, cascavéis, jararacuçus, surucutingas, cotiaras -- I saw these and many other serpents in the slides that Melissa projected during her talk. I also saw pictures of a dog paralyzed by a rattlesnake bite, mummified feet from an accident with jararacas , and many, many victims of accidents with snakes, some without an arm, others missing a foot, a leg -- quite a show.     The auditorium at the Institute was empty. Besides me there were only seven hicks, employees of public-health stations in the interior, who needed basic lessons in applying antivenin. I made myself comfortable in the first row, right beside the screen, fixed my gaze on Melissa and didn't let up for a minute. A healthy-looking young woman, a snake nutritionist. She was wearing a tight blue dress that showed her shape well. Now and then I heard a few words, some phrase about the efficacy of the various antitoxic substances, the applying of serums. `Disinfect the area with alcohol,' she said, `use disposable needles,' but I wasn't paying attention to the words, I wasn't there to listen, I wanted to look, wanted to see and I did see, saw muscular arms, nape, neck, saw small hands, unpainted nails, just the way I liked them. And white teeth. Muscles. `Stop that,' she said, when she passed by me. I didn't stop. I went on looking. `Fresh,' she said, but I know she liked it. In fact, she told me later, `I liked it. You looked like a butcher,' she said.     That night, while we had dinner, Melissa complimented my idea of using snakes as the weapon for my crime. She already had a plan sketched out in her mind; I was part of that scheme and suspected nothing. `You've created a very intelligent crime,' she said.     `I haven't created anything yet,' I said. `I'm going to create it. But she didn't hear me.     `How can the police prove it wasn't an accident?' she said. `Think along with me: the woman takes her husband to a hotel in the country, far from hospitals and public-health clinics -'     `More wine?' I asked.     `Yes,' she replied. `If the woman,' she continued, `if the woman works in a serological center like me, she'll know the clinics that don't have antivenins and choose a hotel in that area. Think about it, it'll be easy to arrange a Bothrops jararaca ; a lot of dealers show up at the institutes trying to sell snakes illegally. You saw the statistics I showed; Bothrops jararaca is responsible for 88 per cent of the recorded accidents in the country, and they're everywhere. Think of it. The murderer can also use a Bothrops alternatus , which as the country folk say either kills or cripples. It's easy to take a snake as part of your luggage, in the trunk of the car. It's easy to get the husband drunk. It's easy to make the snake bite him while he's sleeping with his belly full like a disgusting pig. And it's easy to claim it was an accident.'     `I'm not planning to write a crime of passion,' I said.     `Who are you going to kill?' she asked.     `Two heiresses,' I replied.     `I thought it was a couple,' she said. `Anyway, it applies to anyone. The important thing is the logistical set-up. If she works in a serpentarium and her husband dies from a snakebite, the police are going to say to themselves, "The woman wouldn't be so stupid as to do that." It's so obvious that it's no longer suspicious. Am I wrong? There's even a film like it, with that blonde woman, I forget her name. Do you think the police would suspect me, if I killed my husband like that?'     That's how I found out that Melissa was married.     `The interesting thing about this story,' she said, `besides the fact of it being a scientific murder, is the symbolic aspect. In some cultures, snakes represent life, light, immortality. The Egyptians, the Hindus, and the Australian Aborigines venerate serpents. You can't kill snakes in certain parts of Africa. It's a very serious crime. But for us, the serpent is merely the symbol of malediction, lies, and cruelty. Do you remember the anathema that God cast upon the serpent? "Thou art cursed above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. Thou shalt be pursued and slain without mercy and nothing canst thou do to redeem thyself." I must have been seven the first time I heard that passage from the Bible; it was in catechism class. I thought God was an idiot to expel from paradise an animal as superior as the serpent. There's nothing more interesting than snakes, nothing, absolutely nothing. Any animal -- giraffe, zebra, elephant -- biologically speaking, all those mammals are nothing compared to a serpent. I've always loved ophidians.'     At that moment in the conversation, we were facing each other across the table, drinking wine, each looking at the other, laughing at any piece of foolishness, Melissa's hands in mine, but she still wasn't completely relaxed; she was still holding back. I would insist, interlace our fingers, she would withdraw her hand. It took some time for her to feel at ease, and when that happened, I said, `Let's go to my place.'      I took Melissa to my messy room, papers everywhere, piles and piles of books spread on the floor. I showed her the books I had published with Minnesota and which were sold at newsstands under American pseudonyms: When the Sun Hides Its Face , by Gregory Turow; The Seven Monks , by John Condon; The Statue's Curse , by Malcolm Lovesey, and many others. `Why pseudonyms?' she wanted to know.     `It's a requirement of the publisher,' I said. She thought that José Guber was a very artistic name. I explained that my publisher wasn't artistic.     `You must be very creative to dream up all those crimes, to think of weapons, alibis, escapes -- it must not be easy.' Very difficult, I agreed. `I'd like to read some. May I take them?'     That night nothing happened. Nor the next. We stayed in my room talking about snakes and crime the whole time. `I'm going to confess something to you,' she said. `I like to read about crime. I haven't the time for fiction, I only read scientific texts about the effects of snake venom, but crime, I like to read about crimes in the papers, not common crimes, I like it when I see a human being explode, someone killing his entire family, or else just the opposite, very elaborate crimes, a work of art, an artist, a well-planned crime is a work of art, don't you agree?'     The third time we met, it happened. She was reading something, I don't know what, I didn't pay attention, I yanked the book from her hand and approached. Kisses, I pulled her with my body toward the bed. She said I could believe it or not, but she'd never done that before, that it was the first time she'd ever betrayed her husband. She didn't used the word betray, or husband; she spoke in a different way, she was courageous, she was aggressive, and gentle, she pulled me by the hair, `Come,' she said. Copyright © 1998 Patrícia Melo.