Robert Wilson, A Small Death In Lisbon (1999)

Uncharacteristically, I selected this book because of the prize it received. I was looking for a mystery set in Lisbon and as Robert Wilson’s name came up with the CWA Gold Dagger seal of approval, it was enough to convince me.

As many thrillers now do, the book is written with two parallel plot lines running alternatively in chapters, one in the past (here WWII Europe), one in present-day Lisbon, where the murder of a promiscuous young teenager is investigated. Every reader will be left panting in between suspenseful chapters and guessing where the past and the present lines will intersect. That’s a perfectly oiled little machinery, and I will say no more about the plot itself for fear of giving anything away.

Reading this book was a perfect way to add a historical backdrop to our visit to Portugal. We indeed saw the sunny side of tourist places, churches and palaces, while the book painted the dark periods of Portugal’s history, especially when during the war it played a dubious role as a neutral power. The government played Allies and Nazis for its own benefits depending on circumstances, hesitating between its historical relations to Britain and its affinity with right-wing dictatorships, while it remained open for everyone, especially Jewish refugees attempting to flee European persecutions. Lisbon and the Portuguese coast were a hotbed of spies during these days… a perfect place for thriller plots!

The book’s historical setting only starts during WW2, it then goes on to explain the role of secret police to repress and terrorize political opponents during the 40 years of Salazar’s dictatorship. It’s interesting to note that at no point during our tour of Lisbon did we get any inkling about these dark decades – as if all of this was still very much taboo.

The only downside to this book is the degree of violence and lurid sex. It really takes a strong stomach to digest it, and as the resolution approached I felt that it was all too much. Perhaps I’m the one who’s softening up, but I suspect that the problem doesn’t lie only with me. So I add a cautionary note to my recommendation: to read for the perfect plotting and historical details, but don’t hesitate to skip paragraphs if it’s too disturbing!