Politics can be incomprehensible and situations in some parts of the world more so than most. For example – the conflicts in the Middle East. Matt Rees spent ten years covering the complexities in this part of the world only to walk away as a disaffected journalist, frustrated with interviewing people for hours, only to reduce them to a quote in a finished piece of writing. Objectivity, it seems, has its limitations. So he conceived a series of crime novels designed to portray the global Palestinian experience. The Bethlehem Murders is the first of this series. While it won the 2008 John Creasey Memorial Award, there are no prizes for guessing its location.
We view Palestine through the eyes of Omar Yussef, a teacher in a school for refugees. A non-conformist, he seeks to see and teach the truth in all instances, regardless of political or religious bias. When one of his ex-pupils is falsely accused of collaboration with the Israelis, he begins to investigate. When a second pupil of his is found murdered, the stakes are raised even higher. The world that Yussef inhabits constantly shifts. Who or what – and that would include his own judgement – can he trust? While his investigation leads him and his own into ever more dangerous territory, his allegiance to his ex-pupils never wavers. Neither does his courage.
But can he prevail?
Depicting reality in all its murky ingloriousness, Rees raises difficult questions. Where is Palestine’s worst enemy located? Over the border or within the heart of the Palestinian townships? Are there any winners? While the crimes are satisfyingly resolved, is justice served? Indeed should the reader expect comfortable answers from a novel with the following epigraph?
All the crimes in this book are based on real events in Bethlehem. Though identities and some circumstances have been changed, the killers really killed this way, and those who died are dead just the same.
I’ll wager there’s no finer introduction to the political morass of the Middle East.
(First published as part of Canongate’s World Literature Tour)