This posts is part of a series about books you might enjoy reading before you visit Portugal.
I’m always unsure what to say about books that are—without a doubt—well-written, but that I do not personally enjoy. A Small Death in Lisbon falls into that category.
Robert Wilson is an excellent writer, and crafts a good story. This book is hard to put down. The story revolves around Klaus Felsen, a German businessman during World War II who is drafted into the SS. He ends up travelling to Portugal—both Lisbon and more rural areas—trying to buy wolfram (now known as tungsten).
Wolfram was absolutely essential to both Axis and Allied weapons during World War II, and Portugal was one of the only known sources of wolfram at the time. This important resource allowed Portugal to walk the knife’s edge of neutrality throughout the war, and made Lisbon a hotbed of spy activity.
The book beautifully captures this cloak-and-dagger atmosphere, but it doesn’t stop there:
Klaus’s actions during his time in Portugal ripple through the years, and are directly related to the crime that José (Zé) Coelho—a British-trained detective recently returned to Portugal—is trying to solve nearly a generation later.
Against the backdrop of the “Estado Novo” (New State) dictatorship, in the years leading up to the Carnation Revolution in 1974, Zé traces consequences of crimes committed by the PIDE (secret police) and… well, you’ll have to read the book to learn just what he discovers.
So, with all this suspense and fascinating history, what’s not to love? The characters. All of the main characters are horrible people. Really despicable. And I always have a hard time when that happens.
Also, I have to admit that the very British view of the Portuguese police and their general incompetence didn’t ring true for me.
But all in all I recommend A Small Death in Lisbon, both for the history and for the gripping story. As long as you don’t mind spending time in the company of nasty people who do horrible things…
Many of the books described in this series are also part of the Visiting Portugal lending library. Feel free to ask us about any one of them once you arrive. Or let us know ahead of time what interests you so we can pre-stock your shelves!