Monday, September 08, 2008

the last book I read

A Small Death In Lisbon by Robert Wilson.

Catarina Oliveira, the daughter of a prominent lawyer, is found murdered on the seafront near Lisbon. Police inspector Zé Coelho, assigned to the case, has to unravel a tangled web of intrigue leading back to the wartime Nazi occupation of Portugal and a complex trail of betrayal and revenge.

I don't read a lot of "straight" thrillers these days, and I have to confess that I picked this one up for two reasons, firstly that it looked a bit out of the normal run of utter ludicrousness, and secondly that it was being offered for 99p in conjunction with a copy of The Times, a few years back now. I'm pleased to say that my literary instincts seem to be as keen as my bargain-hunting ones, as this is very good.

With any primarily plot-driven novel such as this the reviewer has to tread a fine line between giving the reader enough juicy worms to tempt them to read it and spoiling the whole thing by revealing various vital plot points. If I say that the plot divides itself between Portugal during World War II and the activities of the SS in particular, the tensions brought about by the Portuguese coup of 1974, and Zé Coelho's murder investigation in the late 1990s, all of which turn out to be connected, that should be vague enough for you.

It's not just the similarity of spelling that links Zé Coelho to Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen - they share a number of other features as well: a recently ended marriage (divorce in Zen's case, death in Coelho's), a penchant for unsuitable liaisons with female witnesses, a more general procedural unorthodoxy and an almost supernatural nose for finding the truth, sometimes almost by accident. Wilson's novel is much more detailed and tightly plotted then any of the Zen novels, though, which are much more concerned with atmosphere and the amusingly glum antics of the central character.

A Small Death In Lisbon won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award in 1999. In typically anally retentive style I have to observe that I've read the previous winners from 1997, 1991, 1988 (Dibdin again), 1987, 1979 and 1963, as well as the Silver Dagger winners for 1994 and 1987.

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