Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"A Grave in Gaza"

Matt Beynon Rees published a nonfiction account of Israeli and Palestinian society called Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East (2004). His first detective novel, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, was published in the U.S. in February 2007. It was nominated for a Quill Award and named one of the Top 10 Mysteries of the Year by Booklist. The French magazine L'Express called Matt Beynon Rees "the Dashiell Hammett of Palestine."

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, A Grave in Gaza (UK title, The Saladin Murders), and reported the following:

With an "amateur" sleuth, a key moment comes when he must overcome his reluctance to face danger and investigate the case before him. Structurally, that moment ties up the initial phase of a mystery novel and plunges the detective into the action and intrigue. But it must also change him in some way.

For my sleuth, Palestinian schoolteacher Omar Yussef, that moment comes on page 69 of my new novel, A Grave in Gaza. Omar has gone to Gaza to conduct a schools inspection, only to discover one of his teachers, Eyad Masharawi, has been arrested as a spy. He soon finds that the teacher was really arrested for blowing the whistle on a scheme to sell university degrees to members of the security forces. At first Omar believes there's been a misunderstanding that can be easily cleared up. But, on page 69, he speaks to the imprisoned man's wife Salwa and realizes he's dealing with something quite different. The teacher has been tortured. Here's his reaction:

"How could they?" Omar Yussef touched his fingers to his brow. He thought of the discomfort he had felt in the room where he had waited for Salwa. He was ashamed of the self-pity he had experienced there, a short distance from where Masharawi had been exposed to true suffering.

That's the key moment at which Omar is forced to take his investigation more seriously. I wanted to be sure that it would ring true emotionally, so I didn't base Omar's decision entirely on his high morals and indignation at the use of torture in a Palestinian jail. Instead, I added the element of embarrassment and shame at his self-centered concerned for his own discomfort, as he waited for the prisoner's wife. This realization shocks Omar out of his complacency and forces him into the dangerous investigation which follows – confronting kidnapping, weapons smuggling, corruption among senior Gazan military men, a gunfight with hoods in a refugee camp, and of course murder.

It's a moment of responsibility that's based on conversations I've had with the Palestinians I admire the most, discussing the point at which they decided to stand up and be counted. Omar's life has been relatively easy, teaching school in a Bethlehem refugee camp, drinking coffee with old friends, and eating his wife's traditional meals in the loving company of his grandchildren. But around him Palestinian society has broken down. Now, on page 69, he understands the time has come for him to leave his comfortable life and face reality.

Learn more about A Grave in Gaza and its author at Matt Beynon Rees' website.

The Page 69 Test: The Collaborator of Bethlehem.

My Book, The Movie: The Collaborator of Bethlehem.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue