The Long Arm of the Past

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One definition of a literary thriller: a detective story with geopolitical ramifications. That, at least, is the formula followed with considerable, nail-biting skill in Robert Wilson's "A Small Death in Lisbon" (Harcourt; 440 pages; $25). The author constructs a murder mystery that cannot be solved without following a winding trail through a considerable and bloody swath of 20th-century history.

On a Saturday morning in June 1998, homicide Inspector José Afonso Coelho of the Lisbon police is notified that the nude body of a teenage girl has been found on a nearby beach. Along with Carlos Pinto, his new partner, Coelho begins to investigate and quickly uncovers some interesting complications. The victim, Catarina Sousa Oliveira, was the daughter of a powerful, well-connected local attorney and his second wife and had already, despite her tender years, demonstrated a precocious fondness for sex and drugs. In fact, she had recently seduced her mother's lover and arranged the tryst so that the mother could catch them in the act.

Suddenly, Wilson's narrative jumps away from this unhappy family and back to 1941 Berlin, where an industrialist named Klaus Felsen is being persuaded, none too gently, to abandon his railroad-coupling factory and take on an important assignment for the Nazis. The Third Reich needs vast amounts of wolfram, i.e., tungsten, to use as an alloy in solid-core ammunition, essential for tank warfare, and the present supply from China will cease once Hitler breaks his nonaggression pact with Stalin. Portugal has wolfram, and Felsen speaks Portuguese, a memento from his past affair with a Brazilian woman. Ergo, Felsen will go to Portugal and somehow find 3,000 tons of wolfram per year to ship back to Germany.

From this point on, Wilson's novel careers along on two tracks — the present investigation in Lisbon and past Nazi activities in Portugal — that slowly but inexorably converge. Inspector Coelho, of course, knows nothing about Klaus Felsen or his murky role on behalf of the Nazis, so the reader is always several steps ahead of the fictional detective. But they are only baby steps, because the connection between Felsen's story and the murder of Catarina Oliveira remains tantalizingly unclear for much of the novel.

In fact, some thriller fans may feel that Wilson drags out the suspense a tad longer than is strictly necessary. But more patient readers will find plenty to divert them along the way. Coelho, for example, is not simply a plot functionary but an interesting and sympathetic character in his own right, a widower still grieving for his wife, killed a year earlier in a car accident, and uneasily trying to raise a daughter about the same age as the murder victim. And Wilson's descriptions often achieve epigrammatic power. Here is Felsen visiting bombed-out Berlin near the end of the war: "Everybody was living underground. The city had been turned upside-down — a honeycomb below, a catacomb above." "A Small Death in Lisbon" is so carefully textured and so packed with grace notes that its dramatic conclusion seems as much interruption as resolution.