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Apr/May 2008 Reviews & Interviews

Death Around the World

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! Matt Beynon Rees' first Omar Yussef mystery, The Collaborator of Bethlehem impressed me in a very big way when I read it last year. His follow-up, A Grave in Gaza is even better and should solidify Rees' standing as a writer uniquely qualified to craft tightly plotted mysteries set in the Palestinian Territories. This time around, his protagonist, history teacher Yussef, is in Gaza to assist the UN in obtaining the release of a university lecturer who also teaches at a UN refugee camp. It does not seem like the sort of mission that will lead to multiple murders and see the region explode with internal violence, but as Yussef quickly learns, nothing is at it seems in Gaza and getting out alive might be the most difficult trick of all.

Rees lures readers into the complexities of Palestinian politics with ease, allowing Yussef to serve as a smart and questioning guide. In this second book, the teacher is not far geographically from his home in Bethlehem, but Gaza seems like another world. Here the many groups fighting for power are nearly impossible to keep straight, and staying above the fray while also assisting the UN proves to be impossible. Here is Yussef voicing some frustration:

"Military Intelligence, Preventative Security, the Saladin Brigades of Gaza City and their rivals in the Saladin Brigades of Rafah. It's as though I have to find room in my head for every square kilometer of Gaza and space for every soldier in all these different groups to keep track of them."

What he learns is that to understand the many motivations of the groups that operate in Gaza is impossible. "Trust none of them," says his friend Khamis Zeydan. "Think only of the man who sits in front of you at any given time. Forget his name and his organization. Just remember that at that moment he's first in line to eat you alive."

It's harsh advice but useful and as Yussef's co-workers are threatened, kidnapped and killed, he finds himself sitting down more than once with men he does not trust in an effort to get to the truth. His original case, to help the UN teacher, splinters off into a search for a missing missile, the loss of two friends and the vandalizing of a grave in the WWI British cemetery. There is a violent gun battle right outside his hotel, a horrifying visit to the local morgue and the discovery that in the rush for martyrdom, so closely tied to guns and power, families are quickly ripped apart. Getting to the bottom of the conflicting stories and power struggles reveals more about how little everyone knows about Gaza, especially westerners, than anything else. "…there's always someone fighting for this stretch of land," Yussef tells his friend James. "Usually with no real knowledge of it or claim to it. The Jews were here millennia ago and the Arabs have been here more than a thousand years, but everyone else who fought for this place was a stranger drawn by greed or hatred or God."

Nothing comes easy for anyone in Gaza, and it is no different for Yussef as he races against time to find his kidnapped friend. No one can stop the violence though, or make sense of it. Life is simply too hard in that part of the world for simple solutions, and the patience required for easing tensions has long ago run out. In the end this book is all about what small thing Omar Yussef can do for those he cares about, and whether or not he himself can be wily enough to survive.

Rees was Time Magazine's Jerusalem bureau chief and he covered the Middle East as a correspondent for over a decade. He knows this region well and his intimate knowledge and understanding of just how complex the Palestinian world is comes as a breath of fresh air to those of us accustomed to the black/white descriptions of most major news media. It is easier for westerners to believe that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict comes down to good and bad on one side or the other--we cling still to the antiquated belief that there must be only two sides in any conflict. Rees blows the top off this foolish assertion and gives readers an amazingly interwoven mystery at the same time. He transcends genre with this series--it is far more than a mystery, far more than simply fiction. Omar Yussef's world is as close as most of us will ever get to seeing the real nature of the Palestinian struggle for peace. And while I am deeply grateful to Rees for his skilled research and writing, I am also unbearably sad that it takes a mystery writer to tell us these basic truths about our world. Read this book--read both of his books--and then you will know why I value this author's insight so very much.

From the other side of the world, in Martin Limón's The Wandering Ghost readers will find not only the latest entry in the Sergeants Sueño and Bascom mystery series but a revealing exploration of life on the DMZ in mid-1970s Korea. As investigators with the 8th Army's Criminal Investigation Division, Sueño and Bascom know the area all too well and are perfectly suited for their latest assignment: finding the first female ever assigned as an MP in zone. You would think that her fellow soldiers would want to know what happened to Corporal Jill Matthewson, but that is not the case. In fact, as the two investigators quickly discover, nothing is at all what they expected when they arrive with the 2nd Infantry to carry out their mission.

Right off the bat, Sueño and Bascom realize that life was, no surprise, quite hard for Matthewson in the macho atmosphere of the 2nd Division. Her situation as the sole female MP was not helped by her superiors or the wild atmosphere in the nearby Korean village where the soldiers spend an enormous amount of time blowing off steam. The interaction between American soldiers and Korean civilians is a main part of the plot, as the two investigators look for clues into Matthewson's last days at work, and meet the people she made friends with. It is these scenes that will be most eye opening for civilian readers, as the often ugly relationship between the U.S. military and the civilian population it both supports and dominates is laid bare. Matthewson apparently could not stand the degrading nature of that relationship and found herself desperate to find a way to save both herself and the country she had come to call home. She was also hiding critical secrets about 2nd Division that, as it turns out, several people would be willing to kill for.

The Wandering Ghost is Limón's fifth Seno and Bascom mystery and it's fabulous. I read it with no prior knowledge of the series and enjoyed it immensely. The history was particularly fascinating to me and the attention Limón pays to the confusion the American presence brought to the civilian population in Korea makes for deeply disturbing reading. In some ways--in the most exiting, thrilling kind of ways--this is a look at how one culture can consume another and the slow dying that ensues from that kind of interaction. It also raises numerous questions about the effect of placing a lot of young men in an isolated place far from home and their society's standards; Lord of the Flies is clearly more the rule here than the exception.

In every important way for a mystery, The Wandering Ghost succeeds. Sueño and Bascom are complex and appealing protagonists (in wholly different ways) and the story of Cpl. Matthewson's career in Korea will be hard to forget. As dated as this mystery has to be, and it does effectively present a 1970s attitude, it is still all too applicable to the world today. All over the world there are American military bases pressed tightly against civilian populations and still the groups struggle to find common ground and ways in which to co-exist without quietly destroying each other.

This is an excellent read, and refreshingly, grippingly, presents a world like few others in the genre.

Fans of Cara Black's Aimee Leduc series will be thrilled to pieces with her latest mystery, Murder in the Rue de Paradis. While I enjoyed her last two books I didn't find them as enthralling as earlier entries. I can't make that complaint with this new title--it starts with a bang and keeps running until the very end. Intense, personal and relevant from start to finish, Rue de Paradis is ripped from the headlines and deadly serious. Black kept me hooked big time on this one; you don't want to miss it.

The book begins with the surprise return of Aimee's lost love, Yves, who seems to be a man determined to settle down for good. Taken by surprise, Aimee can hardly believe that he is back, let alone set on marriage. Fairy tale moments like this in the opening pages of a mystery always get me worried and Rue de Paradis was no different from what I expected; in short order Yves is dead and Aimee finds herself wrestling with a murder that has cut her to the quick while also raising all sorts of questions about Yves' last assignment in Turkey and how close he might have gotten to his subjects.

Even though the murder is set up to look like a sloppy run-in with a prostitute, Aimee doesn't fall for it (how could she?) and gets to work looking for the truth. She meets Yves' supervisor and co-workers with the Agence France-Presse, where he was a correspondent, but nothing fits into a scenario that would leave Yves dead. Aimee is nothing if not dogged, however, and she has a lot at stake in this investigation; she loved the guy. Clearly whoever killed him had no idea she existed, or how determined she would be. She works the mystery bit by bit, unwinding lies in the various Kurdish and Turkish communities within Paris. As to be expected, nothing is as it seems and Aimee must run for her life more than once, but she thinks she has it all figured out--even the police think it is all figured out--but they are wrong, they are all wrong, and it is a white-knuckle finish to get to the final page.

Murder in the Rue de Paradis has more than one active subplot. In this case there is Nadira, a nanny who pretty much exemplifies the fears of every westerner. Black walks a fine line here, making Nadira somehow slightly sympathetic while also exposing her as everything Bush and Cheney have warned us about for years. Continued events in Iraq have made the reality of young women like Nadira all too undeniable however, and so Black thrusts her into Aimee's world, adding just one more potential catastrophe to her nightmare. The intersections between the secondary characters and Yves's murder will keep readers turning the pages and lucky for them, the payoff is excellent.

Welcome back Aimee Leduc; it's wonderful to see you again in such fine form.

Murder in the Rue de Paradis
by Cara Black
Soho 2008
ISBN 1-56947-474-7
305 pages

A Grave in Gaza
By Matt Beynon Rees
Soho 2008
ISBN 1-56947-472-3
352 pages

The Wandering Ghost
By Martin Limón
Soho 2007
ISBN 1-56947-481-5
314 pages

 

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