Murder They Write

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Jonathan Freedland (Sam Bourne) and Matt ReesWednesday February 27th

When two journalists as established as Jonathan Freedland and Matt Rees – who wrote about the Middle East in Time magazine for a decade – turn to writing thrillers and mystery novels, one wonders what lures them aside from such successful careers. They both felt that a different genre enabled them to do important things that the journalistic treadmill doesn’t: to explore the day-to-day texture of individual lives, the subtexts lurking behind politicians’ official statements and the moral complexities of a world inevitably painted in shades of grey. Freedland, who has written two thrillers under the name Sam Bourne, says he deliberately ended them in a way that, he hopes, leaves readers reflecting that perhaps the villain had a point . . . Even the subtlest opinion piece needs to be a good deal more direct and unambiguous.  Freedland has decided to continue working as a journalist, partly because he loves it and partly because his “day job” keeps giving him stimulus and great material for into his fiction. Politicians who are keen to meet up with him as the Guardian’s lead columnist would be far less interested in someone researching his next bestseller. Rees, by contrast, writes standing up in his room in Jerusalem facing out towards Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives. Already surrounded by drama, he has no need to keep churning out articles to provide him with stories. Though he visited Gaza a good deal to write The Saladin Murders, he no longer wants or needs to go there – the balance of risks just isn’t worth it now it’s no longer essential for his research. Although he describes it as deliberately apolitical, his decision to try and portray ordinary life in Gaza and Bethlehem, a world where the Israelis impinge but are never really visible, could also be seen as highly political – a deliberate attempt to get people to look beyond sloganeering and simplistic headlines.  Writers successful in more “serious” often get a hard time when they try to write for the mass market. Freedland, in particular, has attracted some ferocious reviews, no doubt inspired by jealousy, but he seemed pretty cool about it – for this kind of book the only real question is whether readers beyond the chattering classes go out and buy it, and find it a page-turner.  Rees, on the other hand, got reviews back in the Middle East which reflect the political realities out there. One Arab newspaper, responding to an English edition (there are no Arabic translations as yet), had to devote most of the space coverage to explaining the strange, almost subversive notion of the political mystery novel. Since it is a genre where somebody, usually a private individual, goes around trying to uncover political secrets, it may well be an intrinsically democratic form, something the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world and elsewhere would never want to encourage.  The Israeli reaction was even more to the point. Rees is British, therefore antisemitic, and therefore had written a bad book.  

Mathew Reisz writes for the Times Higher Education Supplement and is the former editor of the Jewish Quarterly.

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