A Small Death in Lisbon: Review

Warning Spoilers:


Dear readers; this month I review a book not on this years book list, but one for beach reading-especially if that beach is in sunny Portugal! 

A Small death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson is expertly written, gripping and a good mystery.


The plot is in two parts. The first starts in 1941 and follows a Berlin business man called  Klaus Felsen who is recruited into joining the SS to run a mining/transport business in Lisbon. The other story is set in Lisbon in 1990’s and follows Inspector Zé Coelho, who is brought in to investigate the murder of a young teenage girl, whose naked body has been found sodomized on his local beach.

The two stories are woven between each other leaving the reader with the double mystery of who has killed Catarina Oliveira and what is the connection between them?


Overall I have a dual reaction to this book.

It was well written, the history of Portugal was fascinating and I found the style to be new and exciting. (Especially in writing about WW2 from the point of view of a murderous SS officer and in peace free Portugal.  Also the interplay between the two stories is handled well) I also  found it difficult to put down as the characters are well rounded and intriguing.

However this book deals with some very heavy and dark issues. The writer looks at SS torture, the bombing of Berlin, the Nazi manipulation and imprisonment of its own people, the brutal murder and organised extinction of the German Jewish race, corruption throughout history, the 1974 revolution, the brutal treatment of political prisoners, the madness of life, the soul destroying lust for revenge, pedophilia, the power money has over the poor….the list goes on. And set in among all this is rape scene, after murder, after torture. It can be overwhelming and depressing, to the point I had to put it down and come back to it when I was in a lighter mood.

Great Characters 

However I did find myself coming back to it again and this is mainly due to Wilson’s well rounded and fascinating characters.

In reading the other reviews of this book I have seen many readers complain about their repulsion to most of the horrendous characters in the book. And although I was happy to see the demise of many of them, I also felt some sympathy for them. For instance the murderous character of Klaus Felsen could be read in a more sympathetic light. Yes he is a selfish murderer, but he deeply regrets the life he has lived and in telling his story is trying to extract some justice. Also in analyzing his murders he admits the biggest regret of his life is one of them, while another murder is taken in justified revenge, and the last is self defense. Instead of feeling hatred for Klaus I saw his characters story is that of decline and fall. He is a tragic character who does not believe in the Nazi party and only joins after he had been tortured to the point of death. Until the end of the war he is then stuck in his position due to his love of Eva. And in helping his ill friend escape from prison he could be seen as a changed man. However I am not blind to the fact his love for Eva is selfish, he never mentioned any regret of the bludgeoned murder of the chauffeur, in his escape from prison he was also securing a safe haven for himself and in the murder of his boss he come out of it with a lot of money he knows has been stolen from the Jewish people, which he only confesses once it can not effect him (and may be a form of revenge)

In contrast the character of Zé Coelho acts as almost a relief. Despite the fact he is a widowed cop who is dealing with the brutal murder and rape of a teenage girl he does offer the reader the better side of life. Through him we see a romantic new relationship he starts with his girlfriend, which even he compares to teenage puppy antics. We see the deep love he has for his departed wife and teenage daughter. We see his forgiveness and understanding of his younger sidekick. We see a man is search of the truth even though it may destroy his career and his life.

While Felsen shows the reader the dark, Ze is the light.

The mystery

The other reason I kept coming back to the book was because I wanted to know the answer the the mystery. However this was a bit of a let down. I did figure some things out along the way, such as whose Catarina real parents where. Also part of how the two stories where connected by family. But I had no idea who the murderer was –  which would be good apart from the fact it was so complex, unbelievable and rushed that I’m still trying to work is all out – and I finished the book three days ago! Also the amount of coincidences within the book becomes strained and unbelievable –  such as Catarina connection with her rapist.

The connection between the past and modern day. 

In writing this book Wilson is pointing out how history is not about dates and names but about the human emotional experience, how we all carry history with us and how until people can change we will be doomed to repeat it. We see this in the uncaring Eva who helps the Jews escape because two of her Jewish employees were brutally killed by Nazis. We also see it in the character of the murderer who is driven mad by the death of his family 20 years prior. And Lastly we see it in the segregation, torture and murder of Jews in the second world war and again in the in the treatment of the communists under the Portuguese government of the 60’s. However while I do agree this is a fascinating and interesting point to make, I feel in the writing of the book, this idea came second to Wilson telling a good story. For instance a lot of the details of Felsen’s life could of been left out or even glanced over – however this would have made the book a less of a fascinating read.




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