By Matt Rees
Atlantic Books, £11.99
There is something slightly unsavoury about reading Matt Rees’s latest Palestinian thriller in the wake of the Gaza conflict. It is the third outing for his rather unappealing hero, Omar Yussef, whose base as a history teacher in Bethlehem is not what you might think of as the ideal background for a dogged detective.
Yet Omar Yussef — balding, out of condition and, for all I know, with flat feet — is indeed dogged to the core. His dubious policeman friend, Khamis Zeydan, is even more disabled in this book than before, this time with not just a prosthetic hand but with raging diabetes and a horribly unappealing phlegmy cough. At one point, this intrepid pair are climbing a mountain and it is anyone’s guess whether either of them is going to survive. James Bond this ain’t.
The Samaritan’s Secret is not as bloody or with as high a body count as Rees’s previous two books, but, like them, it provides a really fascinating inside view of Palestinian society.
Not least, post-Gaza, is Rees’s skilful delineation of the war between Fatah and Hamas, here fighting over an expected tranche of funds from the World Bank. Hamas’s attempt to show that “the Old Man” — Arafat — died of Aids is cleverly deployed by Rees as a shameful propaganda weapon with which to attack Fatah. The exposure of further dark secrets, including that of the eponymous Samaritan, cast a useful light on quite how Hamas maintains its grip on the Palestinian street.
Almost my favourite vignette in the book is that of Omar Yussef’s religious son who has just returned to Bethlehem from Britain, where he has been teaching. Because he has a beard and prays five times a day, he is assumed to be Hamas. No, he says indignantly. He just wants what is probably impossible: a Palestinian leadership which is not corrupt.
Rees’s novels should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the Palestinian mind-set. At the very least, he enables the reader to feel superior to his shlumpy hero.