For some 20 episodes, the BAFTA winning series Ross Kemp on Gangs wandered the mean streets of underworlds from El Salvador to East Timor, from Krakow to Liverpool. An early programme explored the favelas of Rio, and that’s where this first book of Penguin’s Ganglands series is set (next stop, promised for May 2010, Russia).
By page 3, a bus has been hijacked in broad daylight at a city intersection, the occupants mugged by the swaggering teenagers of the Comando Negro gang. By page 7, one of the passengers, a young basketball star, has been shot, his blood splattering the bus window – he’d once scored too many points against one of the Comando. Soon, the plot is up and running, twisting through the alleyways of the Santa Marta favela, a warren of drugs and knives, sawn-off Remingtons and AK47s, fast cars and football. It’s a male world for the most part; if they are not defeated by too-early motherhood, girls look on with admiring giggles or oblige with a swift snog in the dark of a garish nightclub.
The difficulty with this book has emerged before all the action kicks off. We are asked to believe that Trojan Industries is a front for a group of crack ex-secret service agents recruited from the likes of Delta Force and the SIS. Their aim is to infiltrate and smash gangs all over the world, beginning with the Comando Negro. To do this, they kidnap 15-year-old Luiz Alves (usefully streetwise, since he grew up in a favela but is now fostered by middle-class parents). Trojan work with certain police officers, who are holding Luiz’s sister Ana in jail on a rigged cocaine charge. The deal is that unless Luiz agrees to work for Trojan by infiltrating the Negro, they’ll allow Ana’s charge to stand, resulting in a long prison sentence. So Trojan’s moral crusade against the Comando Negro (and this is how it is presented throughout the novel) is characterised by tactics no less ruthless than those of their young opponents. When ex-Mossad agent Valerie Singer rescues Luiz from the villa of a corrupt politician, she casually kills four bodyguards as if they were targets in a shooting gallery (‘…a sound of metal impacting on bone… a bloodied hole in his forehead’).
So, in the end, it’s exciting, it’s exotic, it’s readable; and it’s amoral. Favelas and drugs and gang-life are not glorified; but the good guys are as violent and unscrupulous as the bad guys. And after all Luiz’s risky adventures, it turns out the Comando are smashed by the Brazilian police, without much help from Luiz and his Trojan puppeteers. My guess is that Trojan will be showing up again in Russia next May. The Moscow Mafia’s days may well be numbered.