Matt Beynon Rees, a Welsh journalist living in Jerusalem, writes a series known as the Omar Yussef Mysteries. If you pick up anything at all that is bound between two covers, you should be buying and reading them even if you hate mysteries. If you happen to like mysteries, please read THE FOURTH ASSASSIN, the latest Yussef novel, and recommend it to an unenlightened friend.
Yussef is that iconic reasonable man who is in a very bad place at a very bad time. Officially, he is a husband, father of three adult sons, and history teacher at a school run by the United Nations in the Palestinian territories. A non-practicing Moslem who is making the transition from middle-aged to elderly, Yussef is one of the few individuals in his community who has earned the trust of members of the Moslem, Christian and Jewish congregations. Accordingly, he is occasionally called upon to play the role of what could be called --- for lack of a better term --- a “detective.” And indeed, as with the other books in the series, there is a mystery within THE FOURTH ASSASSIN in which Yussef becomes personally involved.
The novel moves Yussef from his more familiar --- if not entirely comfortable --- environs of the Palestinian territories into New York, where he is to speak before a U.N. conference on the condition of the Palestinian people. While somewhat reluctant to be there, the trip gives him the opportunity to visit Ala, his youngest son, who is living with two of his friends and happens to be Yussef’s former students. The three young men --- along with another friend --- jokingly call themselves the Assassins, named for a group from a time long ago.
Yussef had been looking forward to seeing all of them; his joy, however, is abruptly dashed when he discovers the decapitated body of one of Ala’s roommates. Ala refuses to provide an alibi, and, to his father’s horror, is arrested. Yussef understandably becomes obsessed with clearing his son’s name and finding the real killer, whom he may have inadvertently spotted shortly after finding the corpse. Hamza Abayat, the NYPD homicide detective (and a Palestinian by birth) assigned to the case, almost instantly acquires a quiet respect for Yussef but is only interested in going wherever the evidence takes him --- whether it leads to Ala or otherwise.
And if he does not have enough to worry about, an adversary of Yussef’s is at the U.N. conference, determined to ruin his reputation. Yussef --- physically frail beyond his years and emotionally wrought from all he has experienced --- is not out of his league but is nonetheless in danger of being overwhelmed. Fortunately, Khamis Zeydan, Bethlehem’s police chief and Yussef’s longtime friend, is also attending the conference as the head of a security detail. Zeydan is able to provide expertise and an emotionally balanced outlook for his friend as well as some dark humor, courtesy of his frequently irreverent observations.
The trail to the establishment of Ala’s innocence is a complex one, but Rees is a surefooted guide who takes his characters slowly through a wealth of plot elements, which may (or may not) include honor killings, drug dealing, political intrigue, and the fourth of Ala’s friends. Yussef, trying desperately to clear Ala, is in danger as much for what he knows as for what he does not. Nonetheless, he plows ahead on all fronts, knowing that even if he proves his son’s innocence, someone close to both of them will be guilty.
Yes, there is a mystery in THE FOURTH ASSASSIN. But, as with the other books in the series, the mystery, even as it propels the narrative, soon takes second fiddle to the wondrous way that Rees evenhandedly explores the nuances of the uneasy relationships that exist within the diverse communities that claim their homelands as the basis for their religions. It is these relationships --- often even more internally complex than externally --- that give rise both to the mystery and to its resolution in each book. Rees truly gets into the emotions of his characters, even as the stories are told entirely from Yussef’s viewpoint.
Take a look at the first four pages or so. The book begins with Yussef, newly arrived in the United States, climbing the stairs of the Fourth Avenue subway exit in Brooklyn in the heart of Little Palestine. Much is familiar, and much is different. I may have read better written passages recently, but I don’t think I have read any that I have loved as much as the ones contained in these opening pages. This is classic work that will stand up 20 or 30 years from now when you (maybe) and I (almost certainly) are gone, and the problems that currently exist will still remain. Brilliantly conceived and beautifully written, THE FOURTH ASSASSIN is strongly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011