Friday, July 10, 2009

Matt Beynon Rees, The Samaritan's Secret

Matt Beynon Rees is on track to construct a "Comédie Humaine" for Palestine in his series featuring Bethlehem school teacher and amateur detective Omar Yussef Sirhan. Volume 1 introduced us to Palestinian Bethlehem, Volume 2 to Gaza, and Volume 3 to both the dangerous city of Nablus and to the remnant of the Samaritan culture, which is partly based near there on the community's sacred mountain. In all three novels Rees demonstrates the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, the destructive competition between Fatah and Hamas, and the pervasive and oppressive (mostly offstage) presence of the Israeli army. The key problem of The Samaritan's Secret is the Hamas-Fatah violent competition for supremacy, with considerable energy also around the contrast of wealth and poverty and the tension between stricter and more liberal (or even secular) versions of Islam. In Nablus with his family for the wedding of Sami, a policeman we encountered in the previous novel, Omar Yussef becomes involved in the increasingly complex circumstances of the murder of a young Samaritan man (and we learn a great deal about his obscure culture). The strength of Omar Yussef (and also his Achilles heal, in terms of "getting along" in Palestine, and in Nablus in particular) is his empathy and humanity: he refuses to turn away from the Samaritan man's tragedy or to look away from the corruption that lies beneath not only the murder but daily life in the city. Omar Yussef is the furthest thing from a hard-boiled detective: he feels too much of the pain of individual victims in his splintered, unstable society. It is precisely the contrast he provides to the indeed very dark, hard-boiled, noir (whatever term you choose) environment in which he lives that gives the series its edge. His friend the Bethlehem police chief not only is cynical about politics and religion, he can casually kill a man for what seems to be convenience. Only Omar Yussef is troubled by that sort of thing, and even he remains loyal to his friend, fully aware of his character and his past (even more ruthless) deeds. The mystery is solved in an almost archaeological fashion, with numerous missteps and red herrings along the way (Omar Yussef is no ratiocinative detective, he's more intuitive and impulsive, a character trait that constantly troubles his family). He is only momentarily chastened when his actions endanger his favorite granddaughter, who has insisted on going out for a local sweet (which sounds indeed cloyingly sweet). Rees give us a couple of chase sequences that are nonetheless exciting for Omar Yussef's lack of speed and agility--and are not simply amusing or "cute" as has been the case with some elderly detectives over the years of the genre. There is humor (as always in this series) but without condescending to his characters--it is their own humor, which we are privileged to share in, their comic response in the face of the despair and terror of their seemingly endless situation. Rees provides insight and also a satisfying crime story.

1 comment:

Matt Beynon Rees said...

Thanks for the terrific review. You've really picked up on the elements of Omar Yussef's character I wanted readers to respond to. Keep on with the great blog, Matt