Friday, January 4, 2013

A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson

In A Small Death in Lisbon, the narrative switches back and forth between 1941 and 1999, and Wilson's wide knowledge of history and keen sense of place make the eras equally vibrant. In 1941 Germany, Klaus Felsen, an industrialist, is approached by the SS high command in a none-too-friendly manner and is "persuaded" to go to Lisbon and oversee the sale--or smuggling--of wolfram (also known as tungsten, used in the manufacture of tanks and airplanes). World War II Portugal is neutral where business is concerned, and too much of the precious metal is being sold to Britain when Germany needs it to insure that Hitler's blitzkrieg is successful. Cut to 1999 Lisbon, where the daughter of a prominent lawyer has been found dead on a beach. Ze Coelho, a liberal police inspector who is a widower with a daughter of his own, must sift through the life of Catarina Oliviera and discover why she was so brutally murdered. Her father is enigmatic, her mother suicidal; her friends were rock musicians and drug addicts.
I have to admit I was a bit wary of trying something that is set so close to us in time. Although I do love to read about Portuguese history during the first and second world wars the revolution of 1974 seems still too close to us. However after reading so many good recommendations of this book, and knowing that it was a mystery which is one of my favourite genres, I finally decided to pick it up.

As mentioned in the blurb there are two story lines, one set during WWII and dealing with Portugal' role in providing wolfram for the Nazi war effort and another set in the 90's about the murder of a young girl in Cascais (a beach resort in the outskirts of Lisbon). The action set in the 90's is heavily influenced but the 1974 events and some of the characters are very much influenced by their role in the previous regime.

The problem that these types of books have is that, sometimes, one storyline is much more interesting than the other. And I have to say I was much more interested in what was happening in the girl's murder investigation than what was happening during the forties. That was mainly because I did like the character of Inspector Ze Coelho very much. Although Wilson doesn't get every detail right he does get a lot of the expressions we use, the food we eat, the times we spend at the cafe's and the personality a bit "saudosista", a bit living in the past, that we do have as nation.

I liked how well he draws the characters, even secondary characters that make small appearances, are given a lot of attention and makes for a richer story.  Wilson is excellent at keeping us interested and invested in finding out the culprit despite constantly jumping between periods. I think it was brilliant how he finally connected the dots – that is also what kept me turning the pages, to find out how the two storylines are related – but the ending did feel a bit rushed. Besides, Wilson manages to create some really disagreeable characters and when we finally unravel all that has happened I’ll admit that I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth.

In the end I thought that it was a good read. It did leave me curious to try more books by Wilson (there’s at least one more set in Portugal and others set in Seville that seem really interesting) and more books about WWII in Portugal.

 Grade: 4/5


  1. It sounds interesting and I think I'll have to check it out! Thanks for the review.

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  3. I tend to like double narratives like this one, but I agree that there's a problem when one story thread outweighs the other. I know very little about Portuguese history, and am trying to read more about WWII, so this sounds like a good fit.

    Enjoyed your review--thanks!

  4. I just picked this book up from the library. I'm interested in reading more books set in Portugal these days. If you have any recommendations, please drop me an email.

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