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.