‘Morse, Rebus … and now Yussef’ reads the blurb on the front of this book – a quote from one of the London weeklies. When will I stop being taken in by what’s on the cover? The Saladin Murders (2008) is not remotely like the books of Colin Dexter or Ian Rankin, and Yussef is nothing like Morse or Rebus. He’s not even a detective! The Saladin Murders is the second of what has now become the Palestine Quartet. They are mystery stories featuring Omar Yussef, a Palestinian school teacher from Bethlehem in the West Bank who finds himself quite unintentionally caught up in conflict and murder – on four different occasions.
Of course being caught up unintentionally in conflict and murder four different times is probably a good deal easier in Palestine than in, say, Adelaide. Indeed it is the setting of the story in Palestine that attracted me to it. I was hoping for something a bit edgy and fashionably noir, but I didn’t get it. What I did get was a sometimes frustrating, rather low key story that nevertheless has its satisfactions.
Omar Yussef, principal of a UN school for refugees in Bethlehem, has come to Gaza to inspect UN schools there. But before he can begin, he finds that another of the UN teachers, who also works at the University in Gaza, has been arrested. He immediately sets out with two UN colleagues – a Scot and a Swede – to find out what is going on. He is soon entangled in a web of violence and corruption. ‘In Gaza, nothing is what it seems,’ he is told. ‘There is no single isolated crime in Gaza. Each one is linked to many others.’ And so it proves.
Matt Rees is a former journalist who worked in the Middle East, including six years as Time magazine’s Jerusalem bureau chief, and he has written non-fiction accounts of the struggle between Israel and Palestine. So we can assume that he is pretty familiar with Gaza. His view of it on one level is completely negative; the internal organisation seems to be equally or more oppressive than the Israeli presence. He sees the PLO government as a vicious, corrupt, factionalised body made up of ruthless and self-seeking men. They seem indifferent to the suffering of the ordinary Palestinians. ‘To live here,’ thinks Yussef, ‘you would have to accept the shadows, swelter in airless rooms, choke on your resentment.’ The action takes place over several days when Gaza is enveloped in a dust storm, making it an even more unpleasant place to live. A putrid puddle in front of the toilets is ‘the scent of Gaza’. I felt at some points that Rees was overly harsh in his judgement. Yet he has said that Gaza ‘is the most beautiful spot imaginable’, and that he wanted to show the good as well as the bad in Palestinian society.
The good is definitely represented by Yussef. He rejects ‘blind faith in tradition’ and opposes injustice and cruelty. He is dogged in his pursuit of what he thinks is right. He is a kind and polite man, who values his family and the simple pleasures of food and companionship. He knows his limitations. ‘How could a history teacher in his mid-fifties, slowed by the effects on his body of youthful dissipation, hope to encounter such a dirty world and retain his decency, even his life?’ He doesn’t really detect or solve, and is assisted – kept alive, in fact – throughout by his friend the police chief from Bethlehem Khamis Zwydan, and his off-sider, Sami. Yussef is mostly an observer of events, not a driver of them. The final resolution is his work, though.
So what’s my problem? First, I find it all too black and white. It’s true that the police chief is a PLO member, who stands somewhat in the middle. He’s the one that says what Rees may well believe: that the PLO ‘should’ve stayed underground for ever. We can’t govern.’ But the other senior PLO men are over-the-top evil, and their followers are mainly driven by hatred and greed. Whatever you think of the real PLO, this makes for a simplistic ‘goodies versus baddies’ story. And though the writing is often good, it is also sometimes naïve and unconvincing. Take for example the following: ‘Khamis Zwydan’s eyes were hard with recognition of the hatred that overwhelmed Omar Yussef. He dragged his friend forcefully, but with tenderness and understanding, away from the wreckage.’ It just doesn’t ring true to me.
On a purely personal note, I was interested to see that one of the crucial plot elements in the book is similar to one that is central to the plot of my daughter’s thriller Conspire. Great minds, and all that.
You can read more about Matt Rees, Palestine and the Palestine Quartet on his very interesting web-site here. He has also written two historical thrillers, one about Mozart, and one about Caravaggio. Please note that the UK and US editions the books of Palestine Quartet have different titles.