World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read one crime novel set in each country in The Times Atlas of the World, concentrating on the sense of place created by the author.
The Saladin Murders, by Matt Rees.
Plot: “It is a blistering morning in Gaza, as Omar Yussef struggles along the uneven streets to carry out a school inspection. But when he learns that a fellow teacher has been accused of links to the CIA, and jailed, his suspicions are immediately aroused. And the more Yussef investigates the arrest, the more people seem to be implicated, and the murkier his search for the truth becomes. With the police force, the military and Gaza’s most powerful gang all out to silence him, Yussef must face the terrifying realisation that he is no longer fighting to save his colleague – but himself.”
When and where: The book was first published in 2008. Gaza is a narrow strip of land on the southeast corner of the Mediterranean, between Egypt and Israel. A Palestinian territory, it has limited autonomy from Israel, but hostilities between the indigenous Arab population and Israel continue.
Sense of place: The book very quickly presents Gaza as a dysfunctional place; in the first chapter, we are told “the place was so broken that it ought to be pulled out into the Mediterranean and sunk, along with the gunmen and corrupt ministers who ran it.”
The compromises required to survive in this corrupted society are explicit: “To live here, you would have to accept the shadows, swelter in airless rooms, choke on your resentment.”
The story unfolds over a few days; throughout it, Gaza is enveloped in a dust storm. There are frequent references to the heat and the dust. The darkened streets are patrolled by militias, and infiltrated by Israeli patrols.
We learn something of Gaza’s troubled history, subdued by successive invaders and occupiers.
The physical and historical hardships are brought together strikingly: “Feuding emirs, unnameable fear you can taste in every particle of dust in this storm, and death. Death even for those….accustomed to wielding it….That’s not history. That’s the present.”
On the lighter side, however, there are appetising descriptions of local culinary specialities.
Verdict: The book does give the reader a sense of the extreme difficulties experienced by Gaza’s long-suffering population. It is also a very satisfying crime story, with vividly described characters (Rees is especially good at eyes); Omar Yussef is an engaging and unusual creation.
About the author: Matt Rees was born in South Wales. He covered the Middle East as a journalist for a decade. There are three more Omar Yussef novels.