Books: The Long Arm Of The Past

Robert Wilson's A Small Death in Lisbon turns a local murder case into a taut international thriller

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 Jose 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...

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