This month I decided to take a slight departure from my usual reading fare and venture into a murder mystery. I am no stranger to the genre as I am familiar with Agatha Christie, of course, and the Hamish Macbeth series by M. C. Beaton is a favorite of mine. “The Collaborator of Bethlehem” by Matt Beynon Rees is a murder mystery based on current events. It was this fact that drew me to the book.
“The Collaborator of Bethlehem” is the first in a series where “Omar Yussef” an aging Palestinian teacher is the main character. Just before the first chapter starts, a disclaimer states that all the crimes in the book are real, even though the names have been changed. This truly does set the tone for the entire book. The story begins with Omar Yussef having lunch with one of his former students and shortly after establishing the characters, the violence commences.
Omar Yussef is an artfully developed protagonist. He is neither the typical hero nor the typical anti-hero. He is an aging man who feels older than his age and at times acts like it. The book centers on the murder of a Palestinian and the wrong person is accused of being an Israeli collaborator responsible for the murder. Omar Yussef involves himself to find the real collaborator and begins playing the role of detective while simultaneously attempting to save his job teaching history at a UN sponsored school for children in the Dehaishe refugee camp.
Consistently, Omar Yussef encounters religious and cultural differences, and much find a way to work around and within those circumstances. Much of the book describes how Omar Yussef feels himself defined by the successful students he has taught throughout the years. Many of those students are still in Bethlehem giving him many opportunities to reinforce this belief. However, he has an epiphany before the end of the story which will shake the very foundations of his belief for much of his teaching life – and comes out better for it.
Matt Rees has painted a beautiful picture of Bethlehem and he has painted a horrific picture of Bethlehem. The people who live there and just want to live are presented in such a way that your heart immediately goes out to them when their lives are touch by the violence that comprises the horrific side of life in a city that is under the influence of an Israeli army and Palestinian rebels. The rebels are not always shown to be the boogey-man but the ones that are portrayed in such a way evoke feelings in the reader that makes you root for their downfall.
I have been intrigued and stimulated by this book. Matt Rees has produced a powerful first novel and I applaud his efforts. “The Collaborator of Bethlehem” definitely gets five flags from me.