In the glare of recent atrocities, no one needs to be reminded that the Middle East conflict is complex. The prophet's ancient lament - "Woe unto thee, O Jerusalem!" - sounds distressingly relevant each generation. A new novel by Jonathan Wilson, chairman of the Tufts University English department, reminds us that the threads of this situation are, if anything, even more numerous and tangled than they appear in today's headlines.
"A Palestine Affair," Wilson's second historical mystery, takes us back to that particularly fluid period between the First and Second World Wars, when the British held a provisional mandate from the League of Nations to rule Palestine. Though publicly committed to the creation of a Jewish state, Britain was also trying to placate Arab concerns, a diplomatic two-step that was no easier then than it is now.
In fact, as Wilson emphasizes in this rich novel, the situation was complicated by deep divisions among Jews about the legitimacy of a Jewish nation. Zionists in Palestine and England were amassing political and military ammunition, while Orthodox Jews insisted that only God could re-create the Jewish nation. In this tiny desert parcel, "each side," Wilson writes, "mapped the other's invisibility."
"A Palestine Affair" - the double entendre is intentional but deadly serious - opens with a murder that fuses the various tensions in the region.
Mark Bloomberg, a misanthropic British painter, has recently arrived in Palestine to produce a series of propaganda pictures for Zionists in England. He's a Jew (albeit a secular one), but he has no real interest in the new nation.
However, his American wife, a wannabe Jew, has been so inspired by the cause that she's insisted they volunteer their services. "Joyce almost wished that she had religion to provide a home for her excess of feeling," the coolly ironic narrator explains.
Whatever Mark's original feelings for his wife, clearly they've been snuffed out by the loss of his mother, the carnage of the Great War, and the failure of his paintings in London. Palestine is a last effort to keep their marriage alive.
One quiet evening, their peace is violently disrupted by an Orthodox Jew who runs into the yard dressed as an Arab and falls down dead - apparently stabbed by a male prostitute.
For Mark, this is a flashback to the kind of horrors he witnessed on the battlefield, but for Joyce "the murder, in its terrible drama, had already partially fulfilled the promise of excitement that her visions of Palestine had prompted." She's a brash character who constantly tempts us to condemn her as trite or inconstant, but as with all these figures, Wilson keeps exploring her motives until she's sympathetic and tragic.
As the investigation begins, Mark falls deeper into melancholy, but Joyce finds herself attracted to the Jewish policeman, Robert Kirsch, who's trying to solve the murder. Romantically and politically, this is a thicket of conflicting motives and possible villains, but Wilson handles it all deftly.
Mark can't blame his wife for seeking affection elsewhere, but he can't suppress his jealousy either. Joyce feels reluctant to abandon her marriage - the only cause she's ever stuck with for more than a few months - but she can no longer endure the way Mark shuts her out. They're no better at breaking up than they are at staying married.
Meanwhile, the murder seems something more than a case of sexual betrayal. Zionists and Arabs are relieved to be rid of the Orthodox gadfly - even more so to see his reputation sullied. But Inspector Kirsch begins to realize that the clues point to a political conflict with explosive implications. Even as he zeroes in on the truth, the British administration intervenes to obscure it in the name of the greater good. With only a tiny force among violently opposed factions, the pragmatic regional governor would rather maintain order than solve crimes. But Kirsch finds it awkward to be self-righteous about exposing the truth while stealing another man's wife.
The who-dun-it elements of this mystery are entertaining, but Wilson sometimes misjudges what his audience needs and doesn't need explained. Leading rhetorical questions can cheapen the subtle melody of his narration: "What on earth had he been doing over at the Bloombergs poking around and asking questions? Was Ross up to something behind Kirsch's back?" Hmm, could be....
Also, so much rests on a pair of buttons found at the murder scene that they must be made out of titanium to endure the weight.
On the other hand, I could have used more explication of the fascinating geopolitical context of this story, such as the early 20th-century relationship among Zionists, Marxists, and Orthodox Jews. And surely I'm not the only reader who can't locate Transjordan on a map.
Fortunately, Wilson is primarily concerned with issues of character, and the novel gracefully moves on to deeper themes stemming from the tragic nature of these wandering Jews. The war has left them all disoriented and skeptical of grand causes. But a retreat from these armies of the night into a private security where they can be true to one another seems no more stable either. Inspector Kirsch, whose hard-won maturity forms the backbone of the novel, thinks, "That great pillar faith, on which you could lean your misery and get support, had thus far eluded him, but so it seemed had a number of life's other familiar consolations: politics, art, business."
The tone of "A Palestine Affair" resonates with Hemingway's harrowing work after World War I. Wilson has the same ear for unanswered longing, the same courage to let situations hover unresolved. He understands the strain of conflicting loyalties, the pressure to identify with one cause or another when all one really wants is a place to call home. This quietly moving novel doesn't provide any relief from that longing, but it offers a deep understanding of the predicament.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to Ron Charles.