26 November 2009 2 Comments

Scene of the Crime

I went back to the spot where I killed my first man yesterday. I killed him four years ago. I return every few months. Each time I arrive, it’s so peaceful I can’t believe anyone really died. But, even though I’m a writer of crime fiction, someone really did.

I walked across a dirt lot, puddled with the afternoon rain, past the empty reservoir at the head of the valley. Below me the village of Irtas drifted down toward the convent where they hold the annual lettuce festival. The buildings fingered the bare hillsides. Beyond the pines and a silent olive grove: the scene of the murder.

A cabbage patch. In 2003, a young gunman from the Fatah faction of the PLO was creeping home to be with his family for the Ramadan breakfast. Just as darkness was falling. The very time I was there yesterday.

I imagined the trees closing above him, the dim glow of the fluorescent lights inside the house calling him. Then, if he noticed it, the red dot of a laser pointer, used by a local collaborator to alert the Israeli snipers on the hill above to their target. The crack of a distant rifle—the snipers would’ve been 800 metres away—and nothing, or at best a few struggling breaths.

His body was gone when I arrived there the day after his death. I stood in that spot with his wife and mother, as they told me about the moment when they heard the shot, saw the body in the twilight, recognized his clothing, touched his blood. They told me with such vivid detail I knew it had to be part of a novel—it was simply too vibrant, too full of the emotions of life in extreme circumstances, for me to limit it to my weekly report for Time Magazine.

So I made that death the first one in my debut crime novel THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM (UK title: THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS). When I re-read those pages, it always makes me want to drive the few miles from my home to this place on the southern tip of Bethlehem, drawn by the real death, the fictional death, my memories and my prose.

When it’s dank and raining and the same time of year as that first killing, the draw is too strong. So I stood in the olive grove watching the outside of the house across the cabbages.

I stared up at the hill where the Israelis had waited. I’ve been in situations as a journalist, where I’ve looked about and wondered if I was in someone’s sights. I knew that, now, there were no shooters around. Still I felt the dryness in my mouth that comes with pondering whether a man with his finger on the trigger will object to your taking a step into the open.

I edged backward, disturbing the rain from the branches of an olive tree. It always seemed to me most likely that the collaborator had waited here, watching. Angry, hating himself for what he had been trapped into doing, wondering if he’d get away this time or be caught and slaughtered in the street.

He might be dead by now. So many Palestinians, particularly those who collaborate or are suspected of collaborating with Israel, are.

But he’s also my collaborator. I don’t pretend to be free of the damage of the intifada that I covered as a journalist. I’m not Israeli or Palestinian. It doesn’t draw me back into its violent clutches as seems to be happening to them once more.

Still, when I wait among those olive trees, I’m somehow nervous and unsure of myself, like the collaborator who waited for his mark to emerge from the silent darkness. Though the target, the real man and the character in my book, is long dead, I find myself whispering to him: “Come on. Come on out of the trees. Let me see you.”

One day, I expect him to come.

(I posted this earlier today on International Crime Authors Reality Check, a joint blog I write with three other crime novelists. Take a look.)

2 Responses to “Scene of the Crime”

  1. Cindy 2 December 2009 at 5:48 pm #

    Matt- your blog is great reading :-)

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 2 December 2009 at 11:52 pm #

    Thanks, Cindy. It's lovely to know that you're enjoying. Rather soon I'll be redeveloping the blog, and it's gratifying to know that it's appreciated! best, Matt


Leave a Reply