A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson

The small death in this 1999 novel is a kind of culmination of larger deaths, as we begin in the 1990s with the rape and murder of a young girl in Lisbon and then are switched to Portugal in the 1940s and that country’s role in aiding the German cause that resulted in the deaths of millions in World War II. Indeed, for the rest of this novel, we alternate between the recent small-scale story and the earlier large-scale story. Can there be a connection between the two?

One story concerns Lisbon Inspector Ze Coelho‘s investigation of the girl’s death, and the other the adventures of Klaus Felsen, a German factory owner conscripted into the SS, and who is assigned to smuggle wolfram out of Portugal for the German war effort. Felsen later is ordered to smuggle German gold into Portugal and to set up a bank in order to preserve the gold, and we follow his fortunes postwar as the bank he helps set up reaches international prominence. And as the time frame narrows between the two stories, we do begin to wonder how, or will, these two stories ever come together.

The search for the girl’s killer is rather routine, with the inspector interviewing the girl’s family, including her powerful father, a lawyer, and various people on the fringes of society who know of the secret life that led to her murder. The wolfram adventures of Felsen are also routine for an espionage novel, as he works underground with the head of the Abrantes, a Portuguese peasant family, to set up the supply chain. In fact, his relationship with them continues after the war, as the sons use the banking gold to create a new and prosperous image for themselves with no ties to the past.

Despite what I find to be somewhat formulaic adventures in both the present and the past, this work has earned laurels from many crime critics. But for me it gradually became a disappointment. In part, because the pursuit, in one case of facts and in another case of fulfillment, seemed to be reaching no conclusion. Interest heightened only when the stories of Coelho and Felsen become personal. When they introduced sexual or family relationships, or when sudden violence was required because one’s reputation or one’s survival was threatened. This also results in a number of brutal murders that do, if only briefly, heighten the dramatic tension. As a small counterbalance, however, the author, as a resident himself, is very effective at using streets, plazas, and landmarks to ground these various adventures in a real Portugal.

One waits to learn the connection between these two tales, the girl’s murder and the earlier maneuvering with, first, the wolfram and then the gold. When the connection comes, it begins as a generational link, an obvious but arbitrary outcome that disappoints. And then come the details, which are quite complicated, as in many a mystery. The details involve teenage prostitution, obscure characters playing major roles, a major character taken out of commission, a family rape and revenge, the innocent being guilty, the truly guilty not participating in the deaths, and, finally, the irony of an illegitimate birth.

Given both the violent acts and the sexual activity of these characters, The New York Times review by Richard Bernstein speculates positively about author Wilson’s intent in writing this crime novel “It as though Mr. Wilson wants to draw a private, personal parallel to the organized breakdown of civilized behavior represented by the Nazis, the idea that mass murder engineered by a mad ideology has its microscopic counterpart in individual acts of sexual domination and cruelty.”

But Bernstein also says the novel is “not persuasive in absolutely every detail” and that the author “overdoes matters” towards the end, resulting in a kind of “lurid indiscriminateness.” Which remarks reflect my own opinion. That there is too much authorial ambition here. Too arbitrary an effort in trying to connect past and present. And there are too many complications, with too many characters, some obscure, playing too significant a role, as the author tries to make sense of their complicated relationships.

I have another Wilson novel to read, about a police inspector in Sevilla, and, while I have enjoyed the author’s work in the past, I am not sure how eagerly I should look forward to a work that appears to be similar to this Lisbon story. (December, 2018)

The Drop, by Michael Connelly

This 2011 work is an outstanding mystery, one of Connelly’s best. Harry Bosch is approaching mandated retirement as a cop, and he is given two cases. The two cases are not connected, and they never overlap. But what they both do is examine the idea of justice. From almost opposite directions. They ask what are the ends that justify the means of administering justice. And in one case, the reader leans toward the justice thwarted rather than the justice achieved. And in the other, he leans toward the justice achieved rather than the justice compromised.

The novel works because of the complexity of both cases, but it also works because Bosch is fully human. He is a cop, but he has a personal life that begins with his 15-year-old daughter, Maddie; and he often stops his investigations—as Connelly stops his fast pace—to interact with her. Their conversations may last less than a page, but we see what a good father and a good person he is. Bosch is also a widower, and lonely; and when he meets an attractive therapist, Hannah Stone, on one of the cases, both he and the reader hope she will be able to fill the emotional side of his life. In fact, even his daughter wishes so. Meanwhile, in his professional life, Bosch has an interesting, changing relationship with his partner, Chu, who both helps him and betrays him. Chu himself is also interesting, as he has his own issues, and resents this boss who never confides in him.

The Drop is aptly titled. DROP stands, conveniently, for Bosch’s status in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan. Plus, one case he is handling concerns whether George Irving, a man who has dropped from a hotel balcony, has died as a result of a murder, a suicide, or an accident. And why does his powerful politician father Irvin Irving, an anti-police nemesis of Bosch, ask Bosch of all people to handle a case which involves the death of his son?

The other case involves a rape and murder from the past that went unsolved, and had been dropped by the police. Now, it has resurfaced in the LA police department’s Open-Unsolved Unit, where Bosch works, after new DNA evidence has been discovered. Plus, there are also occasions when Bosch is being encouraged to drop each of these two cases.

Connelly spends more time on the first case, in which the prominent politician demands that Bosch find the truth about his son’s death from the hotel balcony. The case brings Bosch into the continual contact with the politics and justice practiced in Los Angeles, and offers the reader frequent insights into the interactions among citizens, the police, politicians, and judges. This case revolves around the son using his father’s political connections to curry favors for his clients. Bosch learns that the son’s situation is more complicated than that, however, and as he explores the son’s connections with politics, the police, and his family, the detective leans toward different explanations of his death. This is what builds the suspense, as the reader is also turned in one direction and then in another.

The rape and murder case is complicated by the fact that the blood on the victim’s body belongs to an eight-year-old child, Clayton Pell, who is now an adult. He could not have committed the rape and murder, of course, at eight years old. Then who did? Bosch uses logic and his powers of investigation to find out, but then the boy emerges as a mayor player as he both emerges as a criminal himself and seeks his own kind of justice. This dark side of society is leavened, however, by Bosch’s romance with the boy’s therapist; and yet at the same time it is complicated by the boy’s evolution into a man whose adult transgressions have been formed by his rough early life. So, when do we sympathize with Clayton Pell, and when do we not? Connolly loves these emotional conflicts, these ironies, and his work is all the stronger for it.

After these two fascinating, complicated cases, it is the book’s ending that helps it to end on a strong point, one that points to the irony and complexity of justice. For it suggests that one guilty man may not be so guilty, after all. And that the department Bosch is so dedicated to appears to have its own kind of guilt.

And so, one wonders how cynical Bosch will remain in Connelly’s next book. Will he be further disillusioned by the police corruption that he terms “high jingo”? Or will he soften, as he shares his heart with someone besides his daughter? No, he has to remain the hard-boiled cynic, even as he remains a needy person. Perhaps, in fact, the cynicism is to shield him from that neediness. On the other hand, maybe the world around him will be lightened by either Hannah or future characters. We shall see. All I know is that this novel has certainly interested me in more of Connelly’s work. (October, 2016)