Thank heavens for Soho Crime, which is gradually drawing across the Atlantic the crime novels of Matt Beynon Rees. Five of them have been published in the UK; THE SAMARITAN'S SECRET, released this month, is the third in the United States, following THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM and A GRAVE IN GAZA.
All feature Omar Yussef, an aging teacher whose experience in a United Nations-sponsored school in Bethlehem has not equipped him well for his attempts to solve crimes. He's not being paid to do it -- he simply stumbles into situations, and in this volume, the situation emerges around the long-planned wedding of his police officer friend Sami Jaffari. When Sami is called to investigate a treasured antique scroll, perhaps the oldest in existence, he's only a few days from his own nuptials. Omar Yussef decides to help speed the investigation; Sami needs things solved so he can pay attention to the joy ahead of him.
But neither Omar Yussef nor Sami grasps right away how complex the crime truly is: There are three factions wrestling for control of information and money, and the continued success of the Palestinian Authority may depend on who wins. A mere schoolteacher can easily be tossed out of the action, since he'll be easy to murder. Or will he?
Omar Yussef's fumbling but persistent attempt to discover the criminals and their secrets draws him into acquaintance with a small but ancient community in Nablus, the Samaritans. He can't help wrestling with the issues of religion and religious authority that come with the territory: Allah's ways are not those of the infiltrating Christians, nor of the invasive Israelis. Yet all three groups have their fanatics. Omar Yussef is starting to think his own family houses one of these: his son Zuheir, who is casting a wet blanket over the family gathering for the wedding.
By the way Zuheir's lips puckered and his thick beard twitched, Omar Yussef sense that he was suppressing a powerful anger. The schoolteacher's second son was twenty-eight years old. He wore a white dress shirt buttoned to the neck, its tails falling outside white cotton pants. It was the clothing of a religious zealot and Omar Yussef searched beneath it for the excitable, curly-haired boy he had secretly favored over his other sons, when they were children. ... He was suspicious of Zuheir's newly devout demeanor, but he was happy that the boy's habitual truculence hadn't deserted him.
Instinct and stubbornness drive him into the dark pathways of the investigation, which all too often wind through the tunnels and dim alleyways of the oldest part of Nablus, from the souk to the casbah. Frail in comparison to the heavily disguised men who chase him, and without their willingness to become a martyr, Omar Yussef's advantages rest in his friendships. And eventually, his insistence on speaking aloud the secrets of the powerful will both threaten his life and unravel the mystery.
Rees's portrait of Palestinian life is as gritty and abrasive as the landscape he describes. But it also echoes the spice of the foods, the sweet honesty of good marriages, and the innocence of children like Nadia, observant granddaughter to Omar Yussef and sometimes the inspiration for his refreshed courage. I especially enjoyed the many twists and patterns that Rees crafts for the relationships of fathers and sons. The religion of Allah may forbid creating images of humans, but it encourages complex interweaving of line and form -- which Rees takes full advantage of, in this compelling novel.