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A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 440 pages
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A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson is a mystery set in Lisbon, Portugal, in the 1990s, but also a novel that has routes in World War II when Germans were looking for an escape route when the war looked to be ending, and not in their favor.  The novel opens with the death of a young teen, Catarina Oliveira, who has a promiscuous past and a less-than-ideal family life.  Inspector Zé Coelho is on the case, which drags him into conspiratorial intrigues and the dark, convoluted past of his home nation.  Shifting back to 1941, Wilson unveils Klaus Felsen, a German businessman who is “recruited” by the German SS for a particular purpose that takes him into Spain, Portugal, and later Africa, as some Nazis, including his recruiter Lehrer, begin to see the campaign against Russia as folly.  Wilson’s novel is about political regimes and how even their single-minded focus can be derailed by the most personal of matters.

Felsen is an opportunist who attempts to make the most of his new position in the SS, doing the best he can to game the Wolfram markets and garner more of the mineral and other materials away from Britain and the allies from neutral countries, like Portugal.  His meeting with a British agent Edward Burton turns ugly, marring his character and leading him down an ever darkening path that sets him adrift.  Coelho, meanwhile, is slowly investigating the murder of young girl, finding that the ghosts in Salazar‘s closet are not so hidden.  The links between the Oliveira girl and the Nazis’ past in Portugal are convoluted and sinister even as publicly the nation remained neutral.

“‘So you’ve seen some of Lisbon,’ he said.  ‘Now when you see Salazar’s capital after dark perhaps you understand my point about the harlot.  Lisbon’s a whore, a peasant Arab whore, who wears a tiara at night.'”  (page 92)

Wilson successfully paints an atmosphere of paranoia among the Germans as the war winds down, and demonstrates through a series of minor characters the tensions between fascism and communism in Portugal following the war.  These political tensions weigh heavily throughout the mystery novel creating a multilayered, interlocking puzzle to be unraveled by Coelho.  Ripe with sex scenes and the underbelly of prostitution in Lisbon, the darker elements of Felsen and later Miguel Rodrigues’s desires come into the light, along with incest, adultery, perversity, and murder.

Unfortunately, these multiple story lines seem forced together toward the end with newer, less important plot lines that could have remained unresolved by Wilson.  Ultimately, the most well drawn character in the book is Felsen, though for the latter third he disappears until the very end when there seems to be no other way to tie up the mystery.  Coelho is a carbon cut out of any police detective and doesn’t seem particularly Portuguese with any respect, which could be due to the time he spent in England with his wife and child.  His time in England, however, may have made him less old-world Portuguese in some sense, but at his core, readers may expect him to still have those old world values, which could leave readers feeling that Wilson’s detective is not authentic enough.  A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson works as a mystery novel but not as well as one would expect given the high number of coincidences, but the historical parts of this book are deeply engaging and unique.  Overall, a satisfying read that will keep readers turning the pages.

About the Author:

Robert Wilson is the author of nine previous novels, including A Small Death in Lisbon and The Company of Strangers. A graduate of Oxford University, he has worked in shipping, advertising, and trading in Africa, and has lived in Greece and West Africa.

This is my 42nd book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

  • Ana

    Thank you for joining the 2013 Portuguese Historical Fiction Challenge. I really enjoyed reading your review and I think you may be right in that “frame story” comment. I read this one last year and it made me curious to try more by the author.

  • Sorry to hear this one wasn’t as engaging as you hoped! I’ve had this one on my list for a long time. I think partly I’ve been wanting to read it more for the setting.

  • The WWII aspect of the story sounds interesting, but since you found this one only okay and I have tons of other WWII books on my shelf to read, I think I’ll skip this one.

    • Feel free! I would highly recommend Night Train to Lisbon instead!

  • Since the historical aspects are the strongest part of the book, I’ll probably skip this one.

    • I think this should have been written as a frame story with someone stumbling upon the Nazi past and following the clues to the end of the book, rather than the convoluted story that actually is presented here.