By Matt Rees
Morse, Rebus... and now Yussef,” raved The Observer in its assessment of Matt Rees’s first foray into fiction, The Bethlehem Murders (now available as a £6.99 paperback). I can’t say I agreed with The Observer then, but on the basis of his second novel, The Saladin Murders, Rees’s hero, Omar Yussef, is becoming more and more likeable — even if no better as a detective.
Rees, former Jerusalem bureau chief of Time magazine, can fairly claim to know the Israeli-Palestinian conflict extremely well, from both sides. In Yussef, he has created an unlikely protagonist, a history teacher in a United Nations school in Bethlehem.
Rees loads the dice against Omar Yussef: he’s in his 50s, short, balding, and once upon a time he was a drunk. But he is also, we learn, a uxorious and extremely affectionate family man, who adores his fond but scolding wife and his favourite grandchild, and genuinely loves the children whom he teaches.
Most of all, Omar Yussef is the kind of Palestinian whom Israelis would be thrilled to believe form the majority of the Palestinian population — a peace-loving, pragmatic man, who won’t buy into the myths created by the Palestinian population about itself and who, while resenting the occupation, still refuses to demonise the occupiers.
In The Saladin Murders, Yussef, though still no Sherlock Holmes, is driven by a kind of dogged decency in his attempt to investigate the truth about a fellow teacher who has been accused of links with the CIA.
Rees is excellent on the whispering culture of the Palestinian street — which tries, condemns, and then executes a man before any doubts can be raised. He is also rather good on that most difficult of problems for a thriller writer: how omnipotent or heroic to make his central character.
The sad but realistic truth about the Palestinian territories is that the body count is extremely high, and if it is not actual killing, then it is maiming and torture. Accordingly, Omar Yussef is fairly unsuccessful in saving many of his friends and colleagues from rather horrible fates — but this mirrors the depressing reality of daily Palestinian life.
Intriguingly, the Israelis are a largely unseen presence in the books, which perhaps is a relief. Rees thus avoids making Omar Yussef into an Uncle Tom. Instead, we get — a real rarity in English-language fiction — a fascinating insight into Palestinian life, its plots, conspiracies, and near relentless misery. In fact, both of Rees’s books will give anyone who is interested in the conflict a different view. I highly recommend The Saladin Murders.