Robert Wilson: A Small Death in Lisbon (1999)

Sometime in the 1990’s a teenage girl is brutally murdered and dumped on a beach in Lisbon; it is the task of Inspector Ze Coelho to track down her killer. In 1941 businessman Klaus Felsen becomes an SS Officer with instructions to go to Portugal and arrange for supplies of wolfram (or tungsten), which is needed to make armour piercing shells and a vital requirement of the German war effort. The book traces the story of both Felsen and Coelho and how their narratives finally interact.

A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON won the CWA Gold Dagger; there have probably been few more worthy winners. Through the majority of the book Wilson uses the dual narrative approach, switching between Felsen and Coelho, the former in the third person, the latter in the third person. This is not the only difference however – Felsen’s narrative is basically that of the spy/historical thriller mode, while Coelho’s is fairly traditional police procedural. The important thing about both narratives and modes however is that they are superbly done. Felsen’s story provides us, through the use of individual studies, with a panoramic view of history, which both shines a light on obscure areas (Germany, and particularly the SS’s, trading activities, the centrality of wolfram and so on) and also gives a vivid and chilling portrait of areas of more general knowledge – anti-Semitism, the concentration camps, the bombing. In Portugal Felsen meets the book’s third major protagonist, Joaquim Abrantes and as the narrative progresses and time goes by much is learned of Portugal’s post-war history under the dictator Salazar, culminating in the events of the Revolution of 1974.

Those events played a decisive role in Ze Coelho’s life too. His investigation, while never less than compelling and substantial in itself, also allows for much reflection on history both personal and national. Coelho is recently widowed with a teenage daughter and a new and ‘difficult’ partner. Both these minefield areas which might become cliched are handled with such aplomb that they are completely compelling. Wilson actually manages to pull off in a wholly convincing way the ‘damaged man dedicated to the pursuit of truth character’ ; this shows that it can be done – you just need to be a writer of real power and authority to manage the, admittedly very difficult, feat. Even more difficult is the feat of writing well about sex – and yet Wilson pulls this off too; extraordinarily rare in any form of fiction let alone mysteries (no doubt he does this from a male perspective, as I am making my judgement, but as the characters who’s sexuality he is describing are male this seems excusable!). At the end of the book all the threads are pulled together but Wilson adds a false ending followed by a brilliant real solution. His plotting here, as in the one other of his books which I have read, has a baroque extravagance. At the book’s heart is a thematic core relating to power and the way in which it corrupts and brutalises, exemplified by violence of all kinds including the viscerally physical. Wilson’s prose is outstanding – vivid yet never forced, used for exactly the purposes he intends.

The excellence of this book gives me a chance to talk about one of my pet peeves – the use of the phrase ‘transcending the genre’. I hate this phrase. At best it is used in a meaningless, thoughtless way. But much worse is the suggestion it carries that the genre needs to be transcended. A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON uses traditional forms – the spy thriller, the police procedural ; it plays no games with those forms (not that I am necessarily opposed to games playing, just pointing out that is not what Wilson is about). But within the constraints of those forms it manages to encompass history, sex, philosophy – most of life in fact. It has sociological and psychological depth and acuity. It has two utterly compelling narratives and brilliant plotting. So if it is possible to do all those things so completely within the mystery genre what the heck is transcendence needed for? If anyone ever drones on with that wretched cliché again refer them to A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON.

Another question is the extent to which this is a one-off? I do not mean as a description of this book but in terms of Robert Wilson’s output. As formerly mentioned I have only read one other book, which was the last in the Javier Falcon series, THE IGNORANCE OF BLOOD (see review at ) so it is a little unfair to make a judgement. But that book, while very good indeed, was not in the same class as A SMALL DEATH. Obviously more reading is required but it may be that here Wilson found the perfect match for his style and scope.

Is the book faultless? No (what book is?). But the fault here is a very peculiar and revealing one. It is too short! The events of 1974, which are so crucial in many ways, are somewhat rushed and a little short of the compelling standard one might have expected given the potential of the drama they provide. It may be however that Wilson felt that he did not want to draw too much attention away from his other narrative at the stage of the book at which they occur (it may also be that he was being told the book was too long already!). But this is a very minor cavil. I imagine it should be fairly clear by now that in my judgement A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON is a masterpiece of the genre. This is not a word which I can recall having used in any other non-GA review, so I do not use it lightly. Certainly I have read other non-GA books which I would accord this status but not in my reviewing days (the last two or three years). So if you haven’t read this yet – all I can advise is to do so as fast as possible – and to hell with the cliché!