on 6 October 1999
I was riveted almost to the end of this book by the complex story of greed, betrayal and brutality set against a beautifully evoked backcloth of Salazar's Portugal in the second world war. However, the complementary part of the plot, which is set in present day Lisbon and which links up with this past, was never so compelling, and I had lost interest by the end as contrivance and coincidence multiplied. Neither were the 1990s characters as brilliantly drawn as their wartime counterparts. My feeling was that Wilson had overstretched himself by working in the contemporary angle and that the book would have been more successful without this. All the same I would recommend this novel both for the vivid descriptions of the horrific - reminiscent of Michael Dibdin at his best - and for the sure grasp of history coupled with a deep understanding of the beautiful but seedy city of Lisbon.
on 23 August 2000
The title of this book attracted me because I am familiar with the city of Lisbon and its immediate environs. I was impressed by the style of writing of Robert Wilson, an author of whom I had no previous knowledge. I found the plot, and counter plots, enthralling and the book's subjects made compelling reading. As with all truly excellent crime writers Wilson has the art of suggesting things to the reader which makes them think they have the "answers", Just when I thought I was in this position everything changed and I had to rethink my reasoning.
An excellent novel which I greatly enjoyed and from which I learnt a number of historical details.
on 17 May 2006
The movement between wartime Germany/Portugal, and modernish-day Lisbon is really quite ambitious, and just about works well. The plots intertwine entertainingly, and while you feel the denouement has happened a bit early and you've "got it", there's always one more twist you didn't quite have under control.
Perhaps by the end, the scarey character wasn't quite scarey enough, and I have to admit that I find some of the violence, and fascination with bodily functions just a tad...unnecessary - but I'm probably just a woos.
Would want to try one more.
on 4 September 2005
This novel is compelling and exciting, a racy blend of a narrative of wartime Nazi intrigue and exploitation interweaved with a modern day crime investigation. Mostly set in Portugal it brings to life the ambiance of the country and nicely juxtaposes the shadow of Salazar-era politics on middle aged Portuguese and still undiscovered Nazi secrets. The main character, the investigating officer, is perceptive, insightful and honest with himself and others, both in his professional and private lives.
Well written and addictive. Top book.
on 15 August 2011
Somewhere in this book there was a compelling story struggling to get out. Based partially on the little known history of Portugal's supposedly neutral role during World War 2, the factual elements are far more interesting than the story itself. The infamous Portuguese dictator Salazar's was a Nazi sympathiser, and at the beginning of the war supplied the German war effort. This fact sets the scene for the story, which involves a German secret agent setting up a smuggling operation - that involved the shipping of Wolfram to Germany for the manufacture of armaments. The story then moves forward to the future where a Lisbon police inspector is investigating the death of a teenage girl. Essentially the plot relies heavily on contrivances and coincidences to link the two stories together to create an unconvincing anti-climax.
Some of the sexual content is sadistic and an uncomfortable read at times given the age of the murdered girl. There are very few writers who can describe the act of sex without it coming across as tacky, tawdry and voyeuristic, less is always more in this case. Wilson has obviously researched Lisbon in great detail, but do we really need to know the characters are sitting on white plastic chairs? There is far too much description of the city and at times reads like a travelogue. Maybe research should have included reading Saramago and Pessoa who have written about Lisbon in sparing prose that evoke the great city far better than a paragraph of Wilson's writing.
Portugal's role during the second world war was duplicitious at times, with Salazar happy to supply Hitler's war effort and use Gestapo agent's to train Portugal's secret police - and on the other hand it had a duty to align itself with the Allies as the six hundred year old treaty with the British dictated. Approximately one million refugees escaped through Portugal, including thousand's of Jews who found safe haven around the world, at the same time millions of dollars of Nazi gold and money was moved through the banks and onto South America - now there's a truly compelling story waiting to be told and one this book would have been better of pursuing.
on 10 April 2000
A Small Death is a much more ambitious novel than Robert Wilson's African quartet but it is nevertheless characterised by the same shaply drawn characters and unerring interest in the darker side of human nature. Personally I found the device deployed in this book of switching from past to present rather irritating and the knitting togther at the end not entirely seamless. However, the writing is beautiful, the plot compelling and one can almost taste and smell both war-torn Berlin and modern day Lisbon. Wilson also demonstrates yet again that he is one of the few writers out there who can write about sex, sexily. This book is very good but one feels that Wilson is a writer honing his art and that the best may yet be to come.
A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON by Robert Wilson is a meticulously crafted whodunit that's set in a place perhaps dismissed by insular Americans as one where not much seems to happen - Portugal. That fact in itself makes the book worth picking up.
The storyline meanders back and forth between two time lines. In the earliest, it's World War Two and German factory owner Klaus Felsen is recruited into the SS for a crucial mission to Portugal. His orders are to buy or steal all of that country's wolfram (tungsten) he can lay his hands on. A handy substance, wolfram is used in making the "hardened munitions" that destroy tanks. In the latest, it's 1998 and Lisbon homicide detective Ze Coelho is investigating the sodomization and murder of sixteen year old Catarina Oliveira whose body was dumped on a local beach.
The world-weary Coelho is, as you might suspect, the plot's hero. He's rendered even more of a sympathetic character by the recent death of his beloved wife, by the rebelliousness of an otherwise loving teenage daughter, and by his professional partnership with a young detective with an attitude, Carlos, who climbs on more than just Coelho's nerves. On the other hand, Felsen isn't content with just being the Bad Guy. He's one of the more despicable villains around because he has no apparent scruples whatsoever. And he breeds uncontrollably, a fact that builds the congenital bridge to Coelho's case.
At 451 paperbacked pages, A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON verged on being too long. It wasn't until the last hundred or so pages when Coelho began to tease the riddle apart and the plot twists were revealed that I began to consider awarding more than three stars. Perhaps it's also that Ze is about the only likeable character in the book, and I wish he'd been given more text space than the detestable Klaus. Also on the plus side is the ending which is, like real life, somewhat untidy. I find that refreshing.
Robert Wilson? Is he currently the the most underrated male crime writer? Very possibly. He gets huge amounts of critical acclaim, and those who read his books seem to love them also, but where the popularity? Where are the sales to match the quality, a la Ian Rankin or Michael Connelly? Wilson probably deserves them more, actually. I've read three of his books now, and each one has been absolutely superb.
A Small Death in Lisbon, with its brilliant dual narrative - one focusing on the exploits of the Germans in Portugal during the second world war, the other on the investigation of Inspector Ze Coehlo into the death of a Lisbon teenager - is an excellent piece of work in almost every way. A Gold Dagger winner, its structure is clever, and the two stories intertwine brilliantly. The book arches high, supported on the pillars of history, and becomes far, far more than a crime novel. Wilson writes excellently, with an intelligence and slight cynicism that really make the novel, and Ze Coehlo, while he may be damaged in the vein of many other contemporary detectives, is an excellent creation, and an incredibly compelling protagonist.
I've not a lot else to say about this book, save from that it's excellent. If you want proof that crime fiction is just as good as any other form, then Robert Wilson is one of several writers who will provide it in spades.
Two different settings and time frames--the waning days of the Third Reich in Germany and Portugal, and contemporary Portugal, with some of the same characters--allow the author to overlap both a complex historical thriller with a traditional murder mystery in unique and fascinating ways. Klaus Felsen, forced to work for the Nazi SS near the end of World War II, is sent to Portugal to buy as much wolfram (tungsten) as he can get, to be used in the manufacture of armor-piercing weapons. He is also responsible for privately smuggling out a great deal of German gold and some stolen art when it appears that Germany will lose the war, a job made more palatable when he realizes that he and his partners can profit greatly in the years after the war if they are careful to avoid discovery.
All these details come into play when a young Portuguese girl, seemingly unconnected with any of this, is found murdered fifty years later in contemporary Lisbon. Inspector Ze Coelho is assigned to solve the mystery of her death, a death which eventually reverberates throughout Lisbon society, the émigré population, the police department, the federal Justice department, political parties past and present, and even the foundations of the present government.
If all this seems like a lot to take on, it is. Although the book is beautifully written with fully developed, imperfect, and quirky characters one grows to like and understand, fine and vivid description, and a fast-paced plot with something happening all the time, ultimately it is difficult to make all the connections required by the fifty year chronology of the plot. Although I worked hard at this, and thought I had succeeded as I worked my way to the conclusion, the last twenty pages had me reviewing and revising everything I had previously observed about the possible motivations of the main characters. Surprising twists are expected in mysteries. This one takes complexity to new levels. Mary Whipple
on 29 August 2000
The two arms of this plot work forwards from WW2 and backwards from the present day. As we trace the growth of a business empire built on Nazi plunder, we are constantly flashed forward to the efforts of a dedicated detective to unravel the sadistic murder of a young girl with immaculate parentage - a murder which proves to be the final act of betrayal in a story spanning generations.
The historical and political detail is exemplary, both in terms of the Nazi black-marketeering and the scars left on the Portuguese psyche by the fascist Salazar regime (a lesser known counterpart of the Franco regime in Spain). The characters develop real life as the story proceeds. Moreover, the author does a much better job of weaving the strands together than some of the reviewers on this site have claimed, and the ending is both plausible and satisfying.
My criticisms of the book are on a different tack. Violence and sexual depravity are detailed with a degree of lewd explicitness that verges on pornographic. That sort of voyeurism is unnecessary in a novel of this quality - the book would stand up better without it. Secondly, I dislike the author's prose - others have liked it but I find his attempts to be a sharp and acerbic wordsmith are never quite pulled off and ultimately count as a distraction.
In balance however, the excellent plot, historical detail and character development lift this book out of the ordinary, and triumph over its areas of weakness.