Originally published December 3, 2011 at 5:01 AM | Page modified December 3, 2011 at 9:12 PM

Book review

Intriguing look at Lisbon in shadow of WWII

Book review: Despite its considerable flaws, Neill Lochery's new book "Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945" is a worthwhile trove of information about an astonishing time and place.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945'

by Neill Lochery

Public Affairs, 306 pp., $27.99

Portugal was neutral during the Second World War, as anyone who has seen "Casablanca" knows. Much of that movie revolves around the need for exit visas to Portugal's capital, Lisbon, from whence one could (more or less safely) flee from the Nazis.

Because it was neutral, Lisbon was thick with spies, counterspies, diplomatic schemers, and refugees seeking haven. This nest of conspiracy is the focus of Neill Lochery's "Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945."

Some of the figures we meet are famous: Ian Fleming (then a British spy), for example, or the art-world figures Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst. Then we have the breathtakingly self-focused Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Also passing through is the actor Leslie Howard, who died when a German fighter shot down his plane, likely because the pilot thought Churchill was aboard.

Other figures are less familiar, such as Aristides de Sousa Mendes. The Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux, France, Sousa Mendes heroically issued passage visas to Lisbon despite direct orders to stop.

And others in Lisbon were downright shadowy. Take Juan Pujol, a double agent who carried out a bold ruse. Pujol convinced the Nazis that he was in England, gathering intelligence for them. In fact, he was living in Lisbon and making it all up, including a nonexistent string of agents he claimed to be handling.

Inevitably, much of Lochery's book involves Portugal's longtime dictator, Antonio Salazar. On the one hand, Salazar was guardedly sympathetic to the Allies. (Reportedly, one reason for this was simply because he disliked Hitler, although Lochery doesn't address this possibility.)

On the other hand, Salazar was wary of the British taking over Portugal's strategically located Azores Islands. At the same time, he needed to maintain cordial relations with the Nazis. Angering them would have led to occupation and the wholesale looting of Portugal's deposits of wolfram (tungsten), a valuable metal used for war materiel.

Lochery, a British writer, has scrupulously researched his subject, with copious notes and a lengthy bibliography. Unfortunately, his book is also seriously marred.

For one thing, there's an overemphasis on Allied-Axis political maneuvers, to the detriment of the powerful human stories it could have told. The book's workmanlike prose never fully evokes Lisbon's vibrancy and ferment.

More serious is an almost complete lack of quotes. Throughout, the author tells us what has happened or was said, instead of showing us with a lively snippet from the memoir, book, or other source he used.

Still, despite these problems, "Lisbon" is a valuable source of information about an astonishing time and place.

Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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