DETECTIVE FICTION AND THE FOREIGN CRIMINAL MILIEU
W.H. Auden wrote in The Guilty Vicarage, Notes on the detective story by an Addict, which appeared Harper’s in May 1948: “Actually, whatever he may say, I think Mr. Chandler is interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing hooks should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.”
The murder, for Auden, should take place in the Great Good Place, and, his view, that meant the countryside. Preferably the English countryside. Should the author intend to write a detective story rather than aspire to something closer to art, and then his murder victim should ideally turn up in the local vicar’s garden.
I recently read Matt Beynon Rees’ The Collaborator of Bethlehem, an Omar Yussef Mystery, which, on Auden’s terms isn’t a detective story but a novel that seeks to break open a window into the realm of political and social reality of the modern West Bank. In recent years, it has become more common to find “detectives” working foreign landscapes. Rees’ novels are an addition to this growing trend. There two basic templates for this crime fiction penned by authors who are from different backgrounds that the one they’ve chosen to set their books. Rees is English and writes about the Middle East where he was former Jerusalem Bureau Chief for Time. Working on the ground as a journalist opens many worlds, especially for a foreigner who is less bound by the traditional protocols that restrain or otherwise limit access.
International private eye literature has two main branches. In the first, the detective is a foreigner from the outside (such as an America P.I. in Vincent Calvino series) or he is a local working in his home milieu. In Rees’ books the investigator is a schoolteacher who is also a sleuth. The one minor foreign character in The Collaborator is an American school administrator, is something of a stereotype for the gullible, insensitive and innocent American abroad. He comes to pieces in the end. The bargain with the reader in such fiction is that the author is able to create what Auden rightly calls the “criminal milieu.”
For an author who arrives well into adulthood in a foreign culture, the ability to accomplish that literary mission is, to say the least, difficult and filled with pratfalls (and pitfalls). I found that Rees in The Collaborator has done a good job of recreating the sounds, smells, and atmosphere of Gaza. The basic story is George Saba, an old student of Omar Yussef returns to Bethlehem after a long absence of living in Latin America. He finds his former teacher, who is mentally and physically far beyond his 56 years, happy to welcome him back. George had returned, along with his family, to be with his aged father. Not long after his arrival, he has a run in with organized gunman, who are alternatively enriching themselves at the expense of beaten down Arab population and running suicide or ambush mission targeting the Israelis. George Saba pulled an old gun on the two gangsters on the roof of his building and ordered them down. They went; but they remembered. When one of the terrorists in the armed gang is killed in an Israeli ambush, the ex-student is accused of collaboration and imprisoned. There is a kangaroo court that will go along. Omar Yussef, despite huge personal risk to himself and his family, takes it upon himself to find the real collaborator. His old university friend, the head of the police, Khamis Zeydan, is a finely drawn character, conflicted, and caught between forces he can only barely balance, his idealism shattered, and finding refuge into the bottle.
I can recommend The Collaborator of Bethlehem, an Omar Yussef Mystery,. It is richly textured, evocative noir fiction.
My reservation, again takes me back to Auden and the detective writers search for criminal milieu. While Rees does an admirable job in portraying the relationships in Arab culture, there was a slight gap that appeared as I read the book. It would be impossible to set a detective story in the Middle East without a fundamental understanding of the relationship between an individual, his family, his clan, his section of the tribe, and the tribe. This is like a Russia doll that all fits together. I found, at times, that Omar Yussef, was less concerned about the effect of his actions on his clan. By putting himself in conflict with the terrorists, who risked not only himself and his family, but also expanding the zone of danger to his clan. It is a one for all kind of culture. And the injury to one is an injury to the group, and revenge can be taken against any other member of the clan even though that person wasn’t personally responsible for the harm. In fairness to Rees, he makes the main villains men without very strong affiliations. In a way, this is an easy out. It may have made a more insightful (and perhaps more realistic) view into the milieu had of the villains been a member of a rival clan. That would have made Omar Yussef immensely more complicated.