Few detective novels have managed to elicit a profoundly emotional response from me the way The Collaborator of Bethlehem had. For his debut novel, Matt Beynon Rees plumbs the depths of his experience as Time Magazine‘s former Israel bureau chief to create a compelling mystery set within the context of an extremely polarizing Israel/Palestine conflict. This unflinching but compassionate portrait of life in the West Bank gives readers who are only familiar with the region through pithy CNN headlines a deeper understanding of the people who continue to live in it and the conflicting forces that affect their lives.
At the heart of the story is Omar Yussef, and aging, ornery teacher at a UN Refugee School. He takes pride in his role as an educator, promoting intellectual curiosity and integrity as a defense against a world quickly spinning out of control. When a beloved friend and student, a Palestinian Christian named George Saba, becomes a scapegoat in the murder of a resistance leader, Omar Yussef risks his life to clear his name. He is then forced to confront the ugly realities that plague Palestine of recent memory: It has become a place where upright men suffer and justice takes a backseat to warmongering.
A quote from the novel:
Yet the gunmen thrived, they whose accomplishments and talents were of the basest nature, they who would have been obliterated had there been law and order and honor in the town. Perhaps Bethlehem was there town after all, and it was Omar Yussef who was the outlaw interloper here, peddling contraband decency and running a clandestine trade in morality.
While the society he paints can be unrelentingly bleak, Rees succeeds in infusing the narrative with glimpses of humor and wryly intelligent observations. He also mimics poetic turns of phrases in English to approximate conversations in the vernacular, something that I really liked. One of the most interesting assertions that Rees makes is his characterization of militias such as the Palestinian Martyrs Brigade as thugs who cloak themselves in nationalistic grandstanding and inflict suffering towards the very people for whom they claim to be fighting.
The novel also deftly touches upon issues such as the Palestinian diaspora, particularly of the Christians who have been systematically marginalized from the land of their ancestors. I haven’t given much thought on the plight of the Christians in Israel, quite frankly, and this novel really brings home the way that they have suffered under the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
The mystery itself is not the novel’s strongest suit–the murderer’s identity is obvious early on and the heavy foreshadowing drives it to the ground. However, a mystery set in a war zone like Palestine still raises some interesting questions for me. Classic detective stories rely on the implicit notion that once the mystery is solved and the criminal unmasked, the Law takes control and Justice inevitably prevails. Sherlock Holmes never had to deal with a criminal that got off based on a technicality. But how does a detective story hold up in a society where criminals themselves are the judge and executioner? I’m also interested in how Rees decides to portray Omar Yussef’s detective career in the subsequent three novels.
I am definitely looking out for the next Omar Yussef title and I heartily recommend The Collaborator of Bethlehem to anyone looking for a gripping story that rises above the typical notions of crime fiction. Definitely a memorable read.