Many truths, one secret

Matt Rees's third detective novel is another warts-and-all depiction of Palestinian culture.

Samaritans book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Samaritans book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Samaritan's Secret By Matt Beynon Rees Soho Crime 288 pages; $24 Scandal, violence, political intrigue and a lavish Hamas wedding are just some of the elements that make this journey to Nablus one to remember. After his exploration of the blasted, blighted wasteland of Gaza in A Grave in Gaza, Omar Yussef is back to solve another mystery, one that begins with a murder but will end up concerning the fate of the entire Palestinian people. The schoolteacher-turned-detective is once again spurred by his conscience - if not by self-preservation - to investigate the grisly torture and murder of a Samaritan. And once again, the author's poetic turn of phrase reminds us that the dark alleys and twisting tunnels of Nablus are symbolic of a dark corruption at its heart. What seems at first like a simple murder case soon spirals outward to include the explosive violence between Hamas and Fatah and the financial future of the Palestinians. In a turn of events that might seem implausible to some, it is revealed that international aid money to the Palestinians will be cut off unless the hundreds of millions of dollars stolen by Yasser Arafat are found. (Of interest is that Arafat's name is never once mentioned in this book - instead he is constantly referred to as "the Old Man.") In the end, the mystery that begins with the discovery of a corpse on a lonely hilltop in the village of the Samaritans becomes international in scope, before again circling back to the tensions and traditions that lie at the heart of Palestinian society. And at every step, the dangerous secret that Omar Yussef is about to discover puts his life in jeopardy. Each of Matt Rees's Omar Yussef mysteries has been as much a cultural immersion as a detective story, and The Samaritan's Secret is no exception: The Samaritan religion and culture will be as much a mystery to most readers as the murder itself, with its ancient ceremonies, revered and priceless Abisha Scroll and unexpected fragments of Judaism. Less remote but equally exotic to many readers are the intricacies of Palestinian culture, from the deadly rivalry between Hamas and Fatah to the social customs and cuisine. This is not a politically correct, sanitized version of Palestinian culture - it is a depiction that includes warts and all: from the blatant declaration by one character that "in our society, women are worth less" to a casual acknowledgment of the honor killings that occur when women "stain" the honor of their families. Yussef himself is a moderate with more enlightened views of women, a fact at least partly attributed to his extensive education. In this novel his family accompanies him to Nablus, and his relationships with them are a reflection of the tensions that intertwine within the culture: His favorite grandchild is a girl, Nadia, who is expected by everyone else to be of little consequence, and his son Zuheir is developing religious leanings that Yussef fears may be those of a fanatic. At the same time, his best friend, Khamis Zeydan, has committed many murders at the command of Fatah. Thus Yussef continually walks a delicate balance between a deep attachment to his own society and a propensity to more liberal values, acting as a bridge for the Western reader between our culture and his own. But the novel is not only a cultural immersion, rather it's a deeply sensory immersion as well: The reader will clearly see the complex architecture of Nablus and its alleyways, hear the gunfire resounding within the tunnels, smell the pervasive odors and taste the different Palestinian dishes simmering on restaurant stoves. The dialogue is rich in metaphor and with a subtly different rhythm that bespeaks authenticity. These are not Englishmen in keffiyehs. The shifts from English dialogue to Arabic are noticeable without being caricatured in any way. To read this book, then, is to savor a rich experience of the darkest corners of Nablus, without having to actually enter the line of fire.