Sunday 3 February 2019

The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin

If you'd asked me yesterday if The Boys from Brazil was one of my favourite Ira Levin novels, I would certainly have answered in the negative. 

But today, as I re-read it for the first time in many years, all bets are off. I absolutely love it.

This is the biggest surprise so far in my project of re-reading the complete works of Levin — just how great this is.

The Boys From Brazil was published in 1976 and comes after The Stepford Wives and before Sliver in the author's canon.

The book opens with a gathering of male conspirators who, smoking after-dinner cigars as they discuss a high tech agenda, strongly call to mind the sinister Men's Association in Stepford.

Levin's writing is full of acutely observed descriptions, even if it's just a Nazi hitman taking off his shoes in a Japanese restaurant. And his gift for description is as sharp as ever, as he takes us through "a steamy jangling kitchen where antique ceiling fans slowly turned." 

This is strikingly cinematic prose.

And once again Levin's ability to conjure suspense is forcefully on display: near the end of Chapter 1, my heart was in my mouth as the kid was on the phone with the tape...

As with The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil features a stunningly audacious conceit at the heart of its story. And, as with Stepford, I won't be revealing that surprise here, even thought it's widely known.

I will tell you that the plot concerns a group of dangerous Nazi fugitives in South America and a washed up Nazi-hunter called Yakov Liebermann who gets wind of a conspiracy they're hatching (by way of that tape I mentioned).

A conspiracy involving a program of mass assassination. The killings have a pattern, all similar men of a certain age, but the motive behind them initially baffles Liebermann and, one hopes, the reader...

The chief bad guy is Josef Mengele, a real-life mass murderer and a Nazi war criminal who really did escape to South America (and, as far as we know, died peacefully in bed. The bastard). 

At first I was dubious about the use of a real person — and such a person — in a work of fiction. But Mengele's behaviour and background is a crucial plot hinge.

So The Boys from Brazil begins with a mystery around which Levin proceeds to entwine a suspense thriller, like the two curving, interconnected strands of a DNA molecule.

Having Liebermann, the old Nazi hunter virtually coming out of retirement — and being regarded as a fossil and an embarrassment even by his allies — is a brilliantly compelling device.

And then Levin has Mengele leave his jungle lair, and the travels of the two men carry them towards a lethal intersection.

The book really gives the reader an emotional workout. It's incredibly frustrating when  Liebermann initially discounts a vital clue. But when he gets back on track the suspense is exquisitely unbearable.

This is a superbly constructed mystery. Levin slips in the casual mention of a name —
Frieda Maloney — early. Later, when she suddenly clicks solidly into the plot, it's sheer genius.

And Ira Levin devilishly keeps the suspense coming. At one point the Nazi cabal in South America call off their operation. But we don't want them to. Because it means the trap Liebermann is setting won't work. Diabolical Levin!  
It's fascinating that, as he enters the United States under a false identity, Mengele wears a neck brace as a disguise; Hannibal Lecter would use a similar ruse some decades later in Thomas Harris's masterpiece Hannibal.

Indeed, the Hannibal Lecter connections don't stop there. Mengele is a foodie and a snob ("The food... forget it"), and the scene where he purchases a knife also pre-echoes that Thomas Harris novel.

I knew that Harris was influenced by John D. MacDonald but I had no idea he was a disciple of Ira Levin. Well, it makes perfect sense. Thomas Harris writes brilliant suspense novels himself, and he couldn't have chosen a finer mentor.

In its themes of genetic manipulation and eugenics The Boys from Brazil takes us back to the world of Levin's 1970 dystopian novel This Perfect Day. With its threat of the birth of the Anti-Christ, so to speak, we're back in the world of Rosemary's Baby...

And Mengele, fiendishly dangerous in the cleverness of both his planning and his improvising, is reminiscent of Bud the cunning psychopath in A Kiss Before Dying.

(There are other resonances with Levin's oeuvre. Is it far-fetched to point out that dogs are instrumental in the finale here, the way a cat is in Sliver?)

The Boys from Brazil is a terrific tale, beautifully wrought, with the chilling symmetry of another conspiratorial meal at the end of the book, where once again an atrocity is planned to be perpetrated.

And once again it's up to poor Leibermann to stop it.
Simply brilliant.

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from Good Reads, where there's a wealth of international editions. Some of which, it has to be said, feature howling plot spoilers right there on the front of the book. Isn't the Chinese one wonderful, though? The French version with a rather nice cover painting, Ces Garçons qui venaient du Brésil, published by J'ai lu, is from the wittily named site NooSFere. And the French version published by Robert Laffont is from Rakuten.)


  1. I think this is one story that is ripe for a remake. The original film adaptation is a bit embarrassing really, really odd tonally.

  2. Another one where I've seen the movie but haven't read the book. I might have to give it a try, but it's liable to make me too angry, given what's happening in the USA these days.

    South America is historically the go-to place for defeated racists. 80 years before the Nazis ran away to South America, various Confederate States of America traitors ran away to Brazil ... because Brazil still allowed slavery in 1865. There are even Confederate US cemeteries down there, and a town that CELEBRATES those @$$#*!&$ every year with a party.