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A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON by Robert Wilson Kirkus Star


by Robert Wilson

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-15-100609-1
Publisher: Harcourt

The murder of a teenaged minx opens up a mystery that reaches back to the darkest secrets of wartime in this double-decker winner of the British Crime Writers’ 1999 Golden Dagger Award.

Inspector José Alfonso Coelho wouldn’t even have been assigned to the case if Catarina Oliveira’s corpse hadn’t been dumped on a beach so close to the home he shares with his own teenaged daughter, Olivia. But now Zé finds that the beach was only the last stop in a short, sad life full of dozens of sexual encounters with a long line of men include at least two members of the band she once performed with—both of whom finished with her only a few hours before her body was found. The case is certainly sordid, but Zé would be even more disturbed about it if he were privy to a parallel tale Wilson is unfolding in interleaved chapters: the saga of Klaus Felsen, the Swabian peasant who clawed his way up the ladder to manufacturing under Nazi patronage and whose 1941 assignment to take charge of a massive exchange of gold for thousands of tons of Portuguese wolfram entangles him with a dangerous crew of Party members and fellow-travelers. What could clandestine shipments of Nazi gold and materiel have to do with the sex killing of a promiscuous teen half a century later? Even readers initially skeptical of the hoary convention of juggling two time frames will be sucked in as eagerly as Felsen’s other conspirators as the inexorable march of history pulls his two stories closer and closer together.

It’s an added bonus that shrewd, self-deprecating maverick Zé Coelho is a wonderfully engaging detective, and that Portugal-based novelist Wilson writes with an economy and perceptiveness that bring each sorry participant to both stories squirmingly alive.