‘A Small Death in Lisbon’ by Robert Wilson


Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 544 pages; 2000.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a thriller as rollicking, intelligent and gripping as A Small Death in Lisbon. Robert Wilson has created a genuine page-turner (a phrase I hate to use because it’s such a cliche, but in this case I can think of no better description) that had me furiously eating up the pages in unison with my raging fever (I was very ill when I read this).

Through dual narratives set a generation apart, the author tells two stories that are inextricably linked in ways that don’t become clear until the end of this brick-thick novel.

The first, told through the eyes of a reluctant SS officer, Klaus Felsen, is set in war torn Europe and examines how the Nazis managed to secretly fund a bank in Portugal on the back of “inappropriate” deals.

The second, narrated in the first person by Inspector Ze Coelho, follows his investigation into the murder of a teenage girl found dumped on a Lisbon beach in the late 1990s. This investigation, aided by a younger police detective, threatens to expose the seedy underbelly of Portuguese life and its dark secrets from its Fascist past…

While I know this synopsis sounds vague, I’m reluctant to write any more because it will only spoil the plot. And what a plot it is!

The pacing is also very well done, helped in part by cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter that make you want to read on (and on and on).

The characterisation is superb — especially the widower Coehlo, who is a wise, empathetic and all too-human creation: I loved his relationship to his teenage daughter and the dynamic between him and his younger colleague.  But the book is not without its stereotypes, which is not unusual given its peppered with Nazis and it must be extraordinarily difficult to create such loathsome characters without resorting to shorthand caricature.

The only other point I’d like to make is that if you don’t like reading about sex or sex crime then this book is probably not for you. There is a lot of sex in this book: Klaus Felsen is slightly addicted to it, and the murder of the girl in Lisbon reveals a sexual past that is quite disturbing.

A Small Death in Lisbon won the CWA Gold Dagger in 1999.


4 thoughts on “‘A Small Death in Lisbon’ by Robert Wilson

  1. That WAS a good book. I picked it up years ago on the strength of the title and because of my fondnessfor/familiarity with Lisbon. It is intelligent and well-written, so for someone like me, who doesn’t read in this genre often, it came as a nice surprise.


  2. Well I don’t think I have read this! I read one book by this author which I think is the first of a series of which the one you review is the second. I did quite like it but not enough to plough through that number of pages again. Your review makes it sound as if the two books are extremely similar. Maybe I really have gone senile and I have in fact read this book– the one I read was about a past and present thread, but the war part was Stalingrad and the present part was Spain somewhere. So it does sound rather like a forumla (or I have lost it). I definitely think that the book I read could have been almost half the length and been as good — talk about drawn out. But the punch was quite good. I don’t think I’ll be going for the one you review, the sex part is a bit off-putting even without the length and similarity of plot to the one I read.


  3. I’ve seen this author about – I think it was his novel The Blind Man of Seville that took my notice. Your review has piqued my interest. I always like a good Nazi subplot.


  4. Isabella, it is an intelligent book, which elevates it above so many other run-of-the-mill crime thrillers.
    Maxine, I’m not sure which book it was you read, as A Small Death in Lisbon is not part of a series. This author, however, has written the Bruce Medway series (Instruments of Darkness – 1995; The Big Killing – 1996; Blood Is Dirt – 1997; and A Darkening Stain – 1998) and the Javier Falcon series (The Blind Man of Seville – 2003; The Silent and the Damned – 2004; and The Hidden Assassins – 2006). I’ve not read any of these books but I am tempted to on the strength of A Small Death…
    nutmeg, have you read The Blind Man of Seville? It sounds like a good plot…


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