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- The Portuguese Books
By the time I’d finished the last of the African books I was ready for a change. I’d been living in Portugal on and off for ten years. Money was still tight, which was why I’d done the contract work in Africa and run new business drives at a friend’s ad agency in England. We’d also benefited from stripping the cork from the cork oaks on our patch of land, an income which comes around only once every nine years.My wife and I then wrote a guide book to the area of Portugal where we'd chosen to live. The guide, A Short Trip in the Alentejo, was my first published work and without my realising it became the stepping- stone to my breakout novel, the winner of the 1999 CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel, A Small Death in Lisbon.

Fascist Dictator
The background reading we did for the guidebook involved researching Portuguese history and I quickly became fascinated by the fascist dictator, Salazar, and the 1974 ‘carnation’ revolution, which ended more than forty years of his politics. The influence of Salazar on the Alentejo was profound. He was determined to maintain this part of Portugal as a rural backwater. The local stories of brutal working conditions and pittance pay were legion and it was why this area became a hotbed of Communist resistance to the regime. The town closest to where I live had one of the most renowned secret police units (PIDE) in the country. So while some families survived on a sardine a day they were also at risk of being hauled in for interrogation having been shopped by one of the many informers (bufos) who were encouraged.

No foes but no friends
There’s nothing like a people living in extremis to excite a writer’s imagination, but that was only part of the story. There was also Portugal’s so-called neutrality in World War II. Salazar was sympathetic to the Nazi cause (although he was a much bigger fan of Mussolini than of Hitler), which sat uneasily with Portugal’s historical relationship with Britain (they have the longest standing treaty of any European country, signed in 1386). This awkward political backdrop meant that pressure, in the form of carrot and stick, was constantly being exerted on Salazar by both Allies and Axis and he in turn displayed an extraordinary degree of cunning by keeping his country out of the war and making a fast buck on the side to boot.

Casino Life
The capital, Lisbon, proved to be a very useful place for the opposing sides to ‘communicate’, which meant that its narrow cobbled streets became a warren of spies and informers, while the outlying seaside town of Estoril, with its fancy hotels and casino, was the preferred haunt of ‘diplomats’ and ‘businessmen’. As if this situation wasn’t extraordinary enough, the city and suburbs were also overrun with refugees, many of them Jewish, who were fleeing the horrors of Nazism from all corners of Europe and coming to the most western port of the continent to try and find passage to America. Thus the Estoril casino became a nightly scene of appalling excess and hopeless desperation.
It took about six months research work, in both England and Portugal, to bring myself up to speed on this fascinating backdrop, but what had launched me into this research was a vague idea about Nazi gold and a happy accident in a library in London. (See A Small Death in Lisbon)


A Small Death in Lisbon The Company of Strangers