Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Bethlehem Murders by Matt Rees

Published: Atlantic Books, 2006
ISBN: 9 781843 546030

First line: Omar Yussef, a teacher of history to the unhappy children of Dehaisha refugee camp, shuffled stiffly up the meandering road, past the gray, stone homes built in the time of the Turks on the edge of Beit Jala.

When a young member of the Palestinian resistance is shot dead near his home on the outskirts of Bethlehem, George Saba, a Christian, is arrested as the collaborator who led the Israelis to him. As a member of the minority Christian community, he is a convenient scapegoat, but Omar Yussef, his old teacher and friend, is convinced that George has been framed.

With George under threat of imminent execution, Omar takes leave from his teaching job to carry out his own investigation. His enquiries bring him up against the Martyrs Brigade, the resistance fighters who effectively run the town. To Omar, they are no more than a gang of corrupt and violent thugs. Everyone, including the police and legal system are powerless against them, and it seems Omar is the only one interested in the truth. As he moves closer to discovering that truth, he puts himself and his family in danger.

THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS is a fascinating book, as much for its insight into the effect of the ongoing conflict in Palestine on the lives of ordinary people, as it is for the mystery. Rees brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of a town in the middle of a battlezone, and a people living with daily violence, fear and uncertainty.

Rees has created a very different and exceptional hero in Omar Yussef. A middle-aged school teacher with a full set of human foibles, he is a man of great integrity, who ultimately cares more about the truth than his own safety. He hates what has happened to his town, and he mourns the time in the past when Christian and Muslim could live together in harmony.

There are some horrific and brutal scenes, made all the more so by Rees' note at the beginning of the book which states that all the crimes in the book were based on real events in Bethlehem. Omar Yussef 's quiet, cynical humour provides a few lighter moments in an otherwise rather bleak book. Rees is a wonderful storyteller and this beautifully written book brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. I look forward to reading more of Omar Yussef's adventures.

This book also goes by the title of THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM (USA).

Matt Rees is a journalist who has worked in the Middle East for more than 10 years. He has written two more books featuring Omar Yussef, THE SALADIN MURDERS (or A GRAVE IN GAZA in the USA - why do they do that?), and THE SAMARITAN'S SECRET (which rather surprisingly appears to have the same title on both sides of the pond). You can find more information at Matt Ree's website.


  1. Thanks for this review, Helen. It definitely sounds like one I'd enjoy.

  2. I read this one a few months ago but still remember it vividly. I cried uncontrollobly for a good part of it - a rare reaction to a fiction book for me. It's beautifully written - but so sad.

  3. Hi Helen,

    I read this book about a year ago but did not get around to featuring on my blog due to personal circumstances then. I can't say I loved it, as "love" is the wrong verb for this novel. One year on, what I remember is this: it's a gripping novel that gnaws at your heart, exposing injustice in an environment of lost control with a sense of morality and ethics. The sense of injustice is something that will never leave me.

    It's a stunning story told within a setting that most of us have no experience of, apart from the news. And it's wonderful in bringing home the reality of everyday life, making many of us thankful that we live where we do.

    I too, felt the sadness you did and that is why I have had to find myself in the right mood to read the next in the series, which I purchased ASAP. But I have to admit that I am not there yet - due to the personal circumstances I have found myself living through over the last year or so. I am simply not ready for more sadness, even in fiction.

    But Rees is an expert storyteller and is absolutely fantastic at creating time, place, and above all, (the right) emotional response in the reader. I look forward to reading his next, when I eventually feel ready. He knows well of which he writes and creates an excellent fiction to relay the reality. The fictional reality is also very, very real and perhaps, on times, more eye-opening than the news, in terms of expression of emotion and human reaction.

    In my mind, Rees is not to be missed or overlooked as he's got a great series here; and if the reader accepts such reality as depicted in fiction, the reader will more than appreciate his series.

    This is not one for laughs; not one for formulaic crime fiction; not one for a commuter journey that leads to short bursts of reading. This is a novel and series that makes you think and reflect about broader issues in life. Perhaps not the issues in your life in your own woods but the lives of others in other parts of the world, where life is not the same and life itself hangs on tenterhooks.

    Rees opens eyes with his novels and it would be criminal (please excuse the pun) to miss this.

    Beautiful prose, yes; great storytelling; wonderful evocation of time and place; and a reality that grabs the heart like an attack that threatens life. Not many authors achieve this and Rees well-deserved his CWA dagger this year.

  4. Thanks for the great review. I very much appreciate that you've picked up on the elements of the book which impelled me to write it in the first place. As for the different titles in different places: my UK publisher thought "THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM" sounded like more of a thriller than a mystery, so he asked for a change to "THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS". In the case of the second book, he thought the word "Gaza" would suggest nonfiction and politics, so we changed the title there, too. With the third book, "THE SAMARITAN'S SECRET", I appear to have pleased my publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. I hope readers like it as much. Of course, publishers elsewhere are planning to change that, too. (In France it's going to be entitled "Napluse noir," ie. Nablus Noir).

  5. Cathy - I highly recommend it - go out and get it now.

    Bernadette - While I didn't exactly cry uncontrollably, there was quite a lot of sniffing and eye wiping! And in a couple of parts - I don't want to give away too much, but you can probably guess - I found myself reading with eyes wide and hand over mouth, while tears ran down my cheeks.

  6. crimeficreader - I agree it's the sense of injustice that stays with you. You felt you really knew these people, and that made the wrongs done to them so much worse.

    The news we see tends to only show the fanatics, and it's easy to forget that for every one fanatic, there are thousands of ordinary people, much like us, just trying to survive. Rees was able to bring those ordinary people to life in a very believable way.

    And I hope your personal situation improves soon.

  7. Matt - thanks for stopping by and adding your comments. And thank you for writing such a beautiful and moving story; and for creating such a great character in Omar Yussef.

    I like a book that takes me out of my comfort zone, and teaches me something about a time and place I'm unfamiliar with.

    The various titles caused some confusion when I was looking for the title of the second book, and found that while there were only three books, there were five titles! I obviously ended up sorting them out, but I'm going to have to be careful at the bookshop.