A Palestinian sleuth in Gaza

2008-09-03 00:00

This is the second in what should be a long series of novels featuring as detective Omar Yussef, a Palestinian history teacher of exceptional talents. This time, on an extra-hot morning in Gaza, he’s on his way to carry out a school inspection when he learns that a Scottish fellow teacher has been accused of links to the CIA, and jailed. The more he investigates the arrest, the more people seem to be implicated, and the nastier things become, made infinitely worse by the brutal discomfort of a sandstorm lasting day after choking, breathless day.

He comes to realise that the forces ranged against any effort to arrive at the truth include the police, the military and the Saladin Brigades, Gaza’s most powerful gang. A Swedish diplomat is kidnapped and held hostage, purportedly pending an exchange of prisoners, and Omar Yussef stumbles on some very dodgy weapons dealing and some appallingly predatory and powerful people using the situation for their own ends. Queasily and unhappily he has to confront at first hand the never-ending torture and killing that seem so much a way of life in parts of the Middle East, and in the process is himself threatened and knocked about. Ultimately, though, he’s able, despite fear and pain, to keep his focus, to penetrate the byzantine ramifications of the various conspiracies and to forge towards the book’s satisfying conclusion.

After a decade as a correspondent and six years as Time magazine’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Matt Rees knows the Middle East well. The Gaza he presents here, tense, violent, unstable, is almost frighteningly alive, and his characters, whether zealots, corrupt officials, or members of close-knit Muslim families, have great authenticity. Yussef himself is one of the most attractive characters in modern detective fiction: middle-aged, physically unimpressive, gentle, fallible, but also intelligent and perceptive, humane and compassionate, with, besides, a dry wit and an extraordinary sense of fairness. A great read.

Stephanie Alexander

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