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The Bethlehem Murders: Omar Yussef Mystery Series - Matt Rees

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Genre: Crime / Thriller / Author: Matt Rees / Paperback / 272 Pages / Book is published 2008-02-01 by Atlantic Books

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      13.02.2010 19:31
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      a thriller set in Bethlehem

      Omar Yussef teaches history in a UN school for refugee girls in Bethlehem. He's sick of all the violence he sees around him. This doesn't make him popular with the local Palestinians, especially the Martyrs Brigades running the land, criminal gunmen really, pretending to be fighters for territorial freedom.

      When an old student of his, a Christian, is falsely accused of murdering a local Palestinian businessman and being a collaborator of the Israelis, Omar Yussef starts investigating. By asking around and confronting people with some unwanted truths he endangers his own safety. Yet, he doesn't give up and is soon engulfed in local strife.

      The Palestinian territories as the setting for a thriller, that is an original idea indeed you may think. The archfiend hiding out in the Nativity Cave of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem where the manger is said to have stood, the final showdown in the Basilica - that has a certain something. It definitely distinguishes The Bethlehem Murders from other thrillers.

      Yet, the idea behind the book is not as original as it may seem. Matt Rees isn't the first journalist who's decided to write a thriller to transport what he's learnt in a certain part of the world wrapping it into a whodunnit. Matt Rees (born in Newport, Wales, in 1967) covered the Middle East for over a decade. He served as Jerusalem Bureau chief for Time Magazine, he also worked as contributing editor to Time and as Middle East correspondent for The Scotsman and Newsweek. How many people read these newspapers? How many people read thrillers? There you've got it. The Bethlehem Murders (US title: The Collaborator of Bethlehem) is the first book of a series of thrillers featuring Omar Yussef, four have been published so far.

      So Rees decided not to write a police procedural but to create a kind of PI, this means he had to think up an interesting character. Omar Yussef is moulded as an anti-hero, he's 56 years old, not physically attractive, with occasional ailments, a dry alcoholic and ex-smoker (his hands still shake), married and already a grandfather. He suffers from the woes his country lives through but refuses to let hate govern his thoughts, he's got friends among Palestinians and Christians alike. Although he's a refugee himself, he teaches his pupils to be free of prejudice and always see the human being, not the religion or nationality. His outstanding qualities are his sympathy, feeling for justice and courage. His courage, however, is sometimes tainted with stubbornness and naivety which occasionally leads to precarious situations.

      Of course, as a simple school-teacher his range of operation is quite limited, so the author lets the Chief of Police of Bethlehem be his mate from university days. In this way he's got access to people and things he wouldn't otherwise have. Also his friends from all walks of life help him when he needs information.

      The author doesn't explicitly comment or, God forbid, even preach on the political situation in Palestine, he just lets his characters go about their everyday lives, that's enough for the attentive reader. The Israelis don't play an active role in the plot (besides shooting at Palestinian houses from whose roofs the Martyrs Brigades have shot at the Israelis), but they're always present in the background as the Occupying Forces. The dwindling group of Christians in Bethlehem, the cradle, or rather manger, of Christendom, and the ever increasing group of Muslims and the conflicts among these two religious groups are in the foreground. "God knows, if there were no bible and no Koran, how much happier would our troubled little town be?"

      Oh yes, indeed, one can't but agree with this statement. But as if it weren't enough that members of these religions can't live together in peace, even the members of one religion can't. When Omar Yussef asks a Catholic priest in the Nativity Church to help him, he gets the answer, " ...if I can persuade the Latin patriarch to shut the church, the Greeks won't allow it" and "...a Catholic priest sweeps some steps that are supposed to be cleaned by the Greek Orthodox and he gets a punch in the face." To say nothing about the different Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah and the criminal gangs calling themselves the Martyrs Brigades.

      Please don't get the impression that The Bethlehem Murders is a political treatise thinly disguised as a thriller. It isn't, it's a fictitious crime story set in a realistic setting, story and background are well-balanced. What makes the book a chilling read, much more than thrillers with mass murders galore - I bet there are more mass murderers loose in fiction than in real life - is the author's introductory remark, "All the crimes in this book are based on real events in Bethlehem. Though identities and some circumstances have been changed, the killers really killed this way, and those who died are dead just the same."

      I doubt that the Omar Yussef thrillers are a great success in Israel or Palestine, the people there only have to open their newspapers, listen to the radio or watch TV and they get everything life. I can recommend The Bethlehem Murders (I haven't read the sequels yet) to everyone who likes reading thrillers and who's interested in what's going on in Palestine. The following book is set in the Gaza Strip.

      ---

      P.S.
      The first prize for the silliest blurb of the year goes to a reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle who composed this, "Omar Yussef is a cross between Yasser Arafat and Miss Marple."

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