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.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Doors Open by Ian Rankin

Published: Orion, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7528-9071-5

First line: The open door was only yards away, and beyond it lay the outside world, eerily unaffected by anything happening inside the abandoned snooker hall.

Mike Mackenzie is very rich and very bored, so when a friend suggests the perfect crime he is more than a little interested. Professor Robert Gissing, the head of the Art School, annoyed about the amount of art locked away from public view, in private collections and warehouses, proposes the “repatriation of some of those poor imprisoned works of art”.

Mike, Gissing and another friend, banker Allan Cruikshank, devise a plan to use the annual Doors Open day to steal a number of paintings from the National Gallery of Scotland's warehoused collection and make it appear that nothing is actually missing. As their plans begin to take shape they realise they are going to need some 'professional' help. A chance encounter with Chib Calloway, a local gangster and an old school acquaintance of Mike's, suddenly makes it all possible.

But it all starts to go very wrong when Mike finds he is much more deeply involved in the criminal world than he ever wanted to be. Bringing Chib into the plan may not have been such a good idea after all. But Chib is not their only worry – there's the dogged policeman, the talented but dangerously mischievous student, the greedy girlfriend, not to mention the very large Norwegian bikie called Hate.

DOORS OPEN is the eagerly awaited first post-Rebus book by Ian Rankin. It is not a totally new work, but a reworked and extended version of a serialised story originally written for the New York Times. Set in the Edinburgh art world, it is a very different environment to that inhabited by Rebus, however there are some common themes. The two faces of Edinburgh again feature strongly and the association of characters from both sides has echoes of Rebus and Cafferty, but Mike and Chib are quite different characters, and their relationship is very different as well.

While DOORS OPEN does not have the depth of the Rebus books, it is written with Rankin's usual flair, and so can't fail to entertain. It doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is - a terrific fast paced thriller. Fairly lightweight but with a dark edge, the plot has enough twists and turns to make for a satisfying read. The book really comes into its own in the last third when it becomes much edgier, and I had trouble putting it down from that point. Much as I enjoyed this book, I'm hoping that Rankin was just using it as a palate cleanser before returning to something with a bit more substance.

Ian Rankin lives in Edinburgh and is the author of the wonderful Inspector Rebus series. More information can be found at Ian Rankin's website.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Snowball in Hell by Christopher Brookmyre

Published: Little Brown, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4087-0062-4
Pages: 393

First line: Ladies and gentlemen, roll up! Roll on up! Step inside!

Are you sick of reality tv? Tired of the endless parade of vapid ‘celebrities’ it creates? Simon Darcourt is, and his response to it is certainly turning (and in some cases, removing) heads. Darcourt, aka the Black Spirit, is a hired assassin who has been keeping a low profile ever since the spectacular failure of his last job. But now he's decided to come out of retirement, and with the help of the Internet, is creating quite a stir with his very own reality show, one that his celebrity contestants are literally dying to be part of.

With the body count rising, the police call in Detective Angelique de Xavia, formerly a Glasgow police officer who is now working with an anti-terrorism task force based in Paris. Angelique has crossed paths with Darcourt before and knows how dangerous he is. She also knows that if she is going to stop him, she is going to need help – the special kind of help only her old lover Zal Innez, bank robber and magician, can provide. But first she has to find him, and then keep him from being arrested.

A SNOWBALL IN HELL brings together characters from two of Brookmyre’s previous books, A BIG BOY DID IT AND RAN AWAY and THE SACRED ART OF STEALING in a story that is a witty, sharp and sarcastic poke at the cult of celebrity. Nothing is as it seems in this book, and just when you think you’ve finally figured out what’s really going on, Brookmyre pulls off another twist. Although it takes a while to set up all the characters and bring them together, the complex and pacy plot makes this darkly comic book a real page turner.

This is Brookmyre in full rant mode and his amusing diatribes on celebrity and media struck a chord with me. He seems to be one of those authors you either ‘get’ or you don’t, and if, like me, you are in the first category, then you’ll love this book. While reading this, I did start to wonder what sort of person Brookmyre had turned me into, as I at times found myself rather guiltily cheering on Darcourt and laughing at some very gruesome, albeit imaginative, murders!

Christopher Brookmyre’s website is well worth a look.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Wallander telemovies bought by channel 7

I read in the SMH today that channel 7 have bought Kenneth Branagh's Wallander series. Filmed earlier this year in Sweden, the three 90 minute episodes are based on the Henning Mankell novels Sidetracked, One Step Behind and Firewall. I'm still not sure about the idea of Branagh in the role of Wallander, but look forward to the series anyway.

Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander
Celebrity photo

This BBC series is apparently due to begin screening in the UK sometime this month, but there is no word yet on a screening date for Australia. Let's hope the network treats the series and its fans with more respect than has sometimes been the case in the past with the commercial networks and non-mainstream series.