In The Fourth Assassin, Omar Yussef, the heroic schoolteacher and detective, is back -- but this fourth installment in the series signifies a major departure from the previous novels. Until now, Matthew Beynon Rees' series was firmly anchored in the dark and often chaotic milieu of the Palestinian territories, ranging from Bethlehem in the first book to Gaza and Nablus in the second and third. In contrast, The Fourth Assassin is set in Brooklyn, far distant from the violence, corruption and political convolutions of the Middle East.
Or is it? On this question hinges the entire novel -- though it is a question very soon answered, as it becomes apparent that wherever a Palestinian travels, the ties to home are too strong and too intertwined with agony to ever break. Yet the cost of maintaining those ties is an agony of another kind. The Fourth Assassin explores the dilemma of the Palestinian living in the Western world, paradoxically surrounded both with opportunity and with the pain of cultural dislocation.
We explore this dilemma in the most intimate way possible: Through the plight of Yussef's son, who when the story opens immediately comes under suspicion of murder. Arriving in a frigid, inhospitable Brooklyn in winter for a UN conference, Yussef discovers a headless corpse arranged on a bed in his son's apartment. It is his son's connection to the mystery that forces the reluctant, now elderly detective into action.
But this time the perils are more subtle, as Yussef finds himself in a place where the police operate through strict legal procedures and brandish handcuffs instead of assault rifles. The danger does not come from the government this time - it comes from Palestine, from home, the place Yussef and his son simultaneously long for and dread. And in this manner, with the stroke of a weapon, the main theme of the novel, that there is no escape from this home, is made brutally manifest.
Other characters in the story struggle with Middle East demons of their own. Among them are a Palestinian detective in the NYPD who has had to sacrifice the trust of his peers for the sake of his career, and a Lebanese family whose unsavory past has pursued them across the Atlantic. In the Brooklyn neighborhood of "Little Palestine," many Arabs have made their home, yet the implication is that such an attempt on foreign soil can never truly be complete. At least two instances of racial epithets also serve to draw attention to the complexities of Muslim life in America since the September 11 attacks.
Another character with an unsavory past is also a familiar face from earlier books in the series, and by now almost a comic figure: Khamis Zheydan, longtime friend of Yussef, inveterate smoker and a killer many times over, represents one of the most interesting of Rees' characters, who has evolved into a wisecracking, disconcertingly likable sociopath. The relationship between the two is a highlight of this novel, leavening some of the darkness of the plot with gallows humor, and illustrating the complexity of Palestinian politics in remarkably human terms.
They are different men: Yussef, the Western reader's window into Palestinian culture, is relatively liberal and opposes violence. Zheydan is a cynic who has committed violent acts all over the world in the name of Palestinian resistance. Yet the two are friends, perhaps because rather than being an indiscriminately murderous fanatic, Zheydan is a pragmatist.
As in the previous novel, a seemingly isolated instance of murder is revealed to be connected with the soul-destroying machine of Palestinian politics. Once again, what begins as a detective story evolves into a political thriller, only this time, the emotions run higher than ever, and passions much darker. There is a heavy pall over this novel that is only exacerbated by its ending.
The plot is not overly intricate, but still contains enough layers of sustained revelation to keep the pages turning, especially in the increasingly suspenseful second half. As always, and perhaps more than ever, it is the courage and humanity of Yussef that shines as a solitary beacon through the darkness, implicitly representing the tragedy of such humanity in a world of terrible grief and violence, but also hope that it might someday prevail.
This review was originally printed in The Jerusalem Post.
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