“An intense reading experience. You will turn the last page of this compelling novel almost out of breath.”
The New York Times.
“Robert Wilson follows in the footsteps of such writers as John le Carré and Phillip Kerr...A highly satisfying book, part thriller, part psychological mystery and part novel of ideas. And it is superbly well written.”
1941. Berlin. Klaus Felsen, businessman and chancer, is drafted into the SS for a special entrepreneurial mission to Portugal. Reluctant to leave his successful, comfortable life in Berlin, the SS shows him he has no choice. And so he arrives in Lisbon and the strangest party in history, where Nazis and Allies, refugees and entrepreneurs dance to the strains of opportunism and despair. Felsen's war takes him to mines in the moutainous north where a brutal battle is being fought for an alloy vital to Hitler's blitzkrieg. There he meets the man who makes the first turn of the wheel of greed and revenge, which rolls through to the century's end.
Late 1990s. Lisbon. Inspector Zé Coelho, a widower with a young daughter, is investigating the murder of a troubled teenage girl. As he digs deeper into all levels of Lisbon society he overturns the dark soil of history and unearths old bones. The 1974 revolution has left some injustices of Salazar's fascist regime unresolved. But there's and older, greater injustice, for which this small death in Lisbon is horrific compensation, and in his final push for the truth Zé must face the most chilling of opposition.
In the late 1990s I read an increasing amount of journalism about Nazi gold and how it had found its way from banks in Switzerland, via sympathetic regimes in Spain and Portugal, to countries in South America. I felt there had to be a story for me in all this, but I couldn't quite see where the human element was going to come from to make it a riveting read. Until one day in a London library, while I was working on one of my African books, I asked my wife to cross-reference gold with Portugal and World War Two to see what she could come up with.
She was back to me within half an hour with the news that the Portuguese government's gold reserves had leapt sevenfold during World War Two, all because of something called 'wolfram'. Wolfram? Neither of us knew what it was. We looked it up and found that it was 'tungsten', which is an alloy used to harden steel. The first fizz of an idea started up in my brain. We worked on it for a few days and found that Nazi demand for wolfram was paramount because Hitler's whole concept of warfare, the blitzkrieg, was dependent on having armoured tanks with armour-piercing shells. By invading Russia, in a bid for lebensraum on the steppes, he had cut himself off from China, which had the largest deposits of this vital mineral. The next largest and most available source of wolfram was in the mountainous north of Portugal.
The Black Gold Rush
The Nazis immediately dispatched buyers to Portugal with orders to corner the market in wolfram, but the British, with their old allegiances and Anglo-Portuguese families, already had a hold on the output of the largest mine. The French had access to the next largest mine, and the Nazis persuaded the Vichy government to turn that product over to their buyers. But it still wasn't nearly enough. What they needed was to get their hands on every scrap of 'free' wolfram available and to this end they mobilised the locals by offering unimaginable amounts of money for fossicked wolfram. This, of course, led to a black gold rush (wolfram is both very heavy and jet black) and whole villages transplanted themselves from the poor south to this wild west Klondike going on in the north of the country. Wolframistas were created out of illiterate peasants and greed, and all the brutality that runs with it, was suddenly rife in the land.
And there it was: my human story. Not, in the end, about gold but wolfram.
The consequences of history
Even with this wonderful breakthrough I still had plenty of problems. I didn't feel it was going to be enough to write an historical novel about the wolfram wars, fascinating though they were. I decided I needed a modern story to make a connection with the historical one. I decided on a murder/mystery: a girl would be killed in modern day Lisbon and dumped close to the home of my Portuguese detective hero, Inspector Zé Coelho, who would be forced to investigate the matter.
My Portuguese hero
I was nervous about inventing Zé. Did I know enough about the Portuguese mind to create a convincing hero? Inspiration came from my friend, João Monteiro, who'd died suddenly aged 38. Whilst he was profoundly Portuguese he was also a bit of an outsider. He'd spent his youth in Africa during the colonial wars where he met his half English girlfriend whom he later married. He was a romantic figure and I admired his extraordinary empathy especially with people less fortunate than himself. Whenever I got stuck on how Zé might react to events, João was an important reference point.
I've never liked novels with dual story lines because, as the reader, I always find myself favouring one story over the other. And yet, here I was as the writer, giving myself the job of persuading readers to like both my stories equally. I decided to make the historical story a third person singular narrative, but give the modern day story the first person treatment. The former would be an adventure in war-torn Europe, following the life choices and exploitation of Klaus Felsen. The SS had co-opted this reluctant businessman to buy wolfram in Portugal for the Nazi war effort. The latter would be an investigation not just into murder, but also Zé's take on his country's complicated history.
By switching between the two stories my idea was to create the essential enigma in the readers' mind to which they had to have the answer: What the hell does the murder of fifteen year old girl in modern day Lisbon have to do with the wolfram wars of World War Two?'
A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd; Re-issue edition (2 May 2000)