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Bookends: This murder was decades in the making October 19, 2014

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: This murder was decades in the makingA small death

By Dan Davidson

March 26, 2014

– 815 words –


A Small Death In Lisbon



536 pages



This book was an object lesson about how the part of a story that annoys you the most can turn out to be essential to understanding the part that you like. There are two strands to this complex mystery, which was first published in 1999 and won the British Crime Writers’ Golden Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel in that year.

It begins with the murder scene, a long paragraph which runs over a page and a half and is given to us from the point of view of the person being murdered. We don’t know her age, her name or anything about her, including just when this is taking place., but it is clear that she is being killed.

When we turn the page again we are in February 1941 in Berlin, meeting Klaus Felsen for the first time. Felsen is of Swabian peasant stock, but he has improved himself in business and attracted the attention of the German SS, who need a shrewd man with a facility for languages to manage their secret trade in wolfram (tungsten) in Portugal.

Before they can trust him they must break him so that he knows to whom he must kowtow and what fate might await any failure.

Felsen is not a nice man when his story begins, and he doesn’t get any better as his story arc continues over the next 50 years. His part of the book was the part that annoyed me, and yet it introduces a whole host of other characters and motives that are important to the fate of the young girl.

We are up to page 53 before we meet Inspector José Afonso Coelho. It is 199(something) in Lisbon, and Zé, as he is better known, is having his beard shaved off, the penalty he has to pay for failing to lose the exact amount of weight that he has put on while grieving the death of his wife a year earlier. To encourage him (and perhaps save his life) his daughter has organized this as a charity event.

While Felsen’s narrative is thankfully in the third person (I don’t think I’d want to spend much time in his head) Coelho’s is a first person account of his investigation into the murder we witnessed on pages 1 and 2. Coelho grew up during Portugal’s fascist years, which were a remnant of the political turmoil of the period between the Spanish Civil War and the end of World War II. The remaining fascist dictatorship collapsed in 1974 and repercussions are continuing to reverberate a quarter century later.

The two narratives overlap at that point, and during part of the Felsen narrative we see the young Coelho in one scene.

As he and his young partner, Carlos Pinto, work to uncover the identity of the murdered girl, they find she is the daughter of Dr. Oliveira, and that the Oliveira family is an extremely dysfunctional one. Caterina, the daughter, was a young woman with twisted sexual appetites but, oddly enough, that was not why she died.

There’s quite a bit of sex in this book, but it’s interesting how the tone and the sense of it varies between the two narratives. There is nothing nice about any of the liaisons in the Felsen narrative, no matter who is involved, what the characters think they are feeling, or what the outcomes are. Each coupling left me feeling soiled and anxious for it to be over as they were essentially selfish and grubby.

Coelho has been celibate since his wife’s passing and is surprised and almost guilty when he finds himself attracted to Luísa Madrugada, a university teacher whose expertise is of some use to him is shedding light on the history that he keeps turning up as the investigation progresses. It is a mutual attraction and it leads to scenes that feel so much cleaner and correct than those in the other strand of the novel.

When Coelho’s daughter, Olivia, hooks up with his partner, Carlos, that too, seems natural, though Coelho feels the odd sensations that any father feels on suddenly realizing that his daughter is a woman.

There are many twists and turns in both of the story arcs that make up the strands of this mystery. The detective story is actually more straightforward than the generation spanning Felsen story. For a long time it seems as if there cannot possibly be any link between these distinctly different tales, but eventually it does become clear that they are inextricably connected, and it all makes sense in the end.

It’s easy to see why it won that award, and why the publisher felt the urge to put out a 10th anniversary edition.





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