The Samaritan's Secret
By Matt Beynon Rees.
Soho Crime. 310 pp. $24
Reviewed by Peter Rozovsky
Matt Rees' third crime novel set in the Palestinian territories is more didactic than his first two, more deliberately a lesson in Palestinian history and an attack on abuses within Palestinian politics.
Fair enough; the history into which Rees delves is little known, lost amid the area's great, headline-grabbing struggles: Israelis vs. Palestinians and Fatah vs. Hamas. And this book's setting, the city of Nablus - far more ancient than the Palestinians themselves - is far less known than Bethlehem or Gaza City. But then, a desire to get behind the headlines is what drove Rees, a former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine, out of journalism and into fiction.
"I was in a cabbage field near Bethlehem in 2003," Rees told me, "interviewing the mother and wife of a Palestinian gunman who'd been killed by Israeli snipers as he crept home to break the Ramadan fast with his family. They talked about discovering his body in the moonlight and touching his blood to their faces, but they also told me in very profound, emotional terms what it had been like to go through such an extreme experience. I remember thinking: 'This is too good for Time magazine.' "
That death formed the basis for the first killing in Rees' first novel, The Collaborator of Bethlehem. For his current book, the scenes are Nablus and the ruins of the sacred Samaritan temple that loom above on Mount Jerizim. A precious scroll belonging to the ancient sect of the Samaritans, their version of the Torah, has disappeared, been ransomed, and then returned, and a young man is found dead.
The man, it transpires, may have been the Samaritan priest's son. He also handled finances for "the Old Man," Yasir Arafat, and that gave him access to hundreds of millions of dollars intended for the Palestinian government but now disappeared into private bank accounts. If the money does not turn up within a few days, the World Bank will cut off all aid to the Palestinian territories.
The deadline for the aid cutoff provides the suspense, and the money provides the mystery. Local color, often grim, lends the novel its texture.
A police officer from Fatah, a good man with a violent past, muses bitterly that faction trumps law in the territories, that his past will be used against him if he tries to arrest anyone from the opposing Hamas faction. A sheikh harangues at a mass wedding. More touching, gunmen whose politics Rees clearly hates will nonetheless greet the sixtyish protagonist with courtesy. And characters back in Palestine after earlier, more liberated years in Beirut run smack into life-changing strictures they had not faced in the cosmopolitan Lebanese capital.
The protagonist of Rees' Mideast thrillers, Omar Yussef, is nominally a history teacher, but after Collaborators he spends little time in the classroom. Instead, he works with his friend Khamis Zeydan, the above-mentioned police officer so bitterly constrained by the Hamas-Fatah fighting. He becomes involved in intrigue at higher levels through his interaction with United Nations or World Bank officials who hover around the stories' edges. (This interaction seems plausible, for Yussef's employer is a U.N. school.)
Partisans of Fatah, which Arafat headed, might squirm at a plot set in motion by Arafat's massive financial corruption. Their Hamas counterparts are no more likely to enjoy depictions of a fanatical sheikh - or the glimpses of Hamas green as thugs beat up Yussef.
But Rees is interested less in Fatah and Hamas than in the tortured history of the Palestinian people. "No one knew who would be alive the next day," a character tells Yussef. "You could be killed by the Syrians, the Israelis, the Christian militias, the Shiite gangs, by one of the other Palestinian factions, or even by the Old Man himself."
Peter Rozovsky is an Inquirer copy editor. He blogs about international crime fiction at Detectives Beyond Borders, http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com.