It is a real pleasure to have Matt Rees back on Scene of the Crime. He was one of the first writers I had on the site, three-and-a-half years ago.
Matt is the old-fashioned man of letters type: former Middle East correspondent for The Scotsman and Newsweek, he was Time’s Jerusalem bureau chief during the Palestinian intifada.
Then he turned to fiction, creating the ground-breaking and award-winning crime quartet about Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef set against the noir backdrop of the intifada. The novels in that series include The Collaborator of Bethlehem, A Grave in Gaze, The Samaritan’s Secret, and The Fourth Assassin. Dubbed the “Dashiell Hammett of Palestine,” by L’Express, Matt earned an esteemed CWA Dagger for the series, as well as a shot out of superlatives from the critics: “engrossing” (New York Times), “intelligent and suspenseful” (Daily Beast), and “excellent” (Publishers Weekly).
Matt took a break from the Yussef novels, turning to historical fiction with his Mozart’s Last Aria and A Name in Blood, about the Italian painter Caravaggio Of the former, a reviewer for Marie Claire noted: ” Matt Rees cleverly weaves music, crime, and conspiracy into a sumptuous historical whodunit, set against the decadent backdrop of 18th-century Vienna.” Of his Caravvagio novel, the Daily Mail felt that Rees “illuminates with sensitivity the dark portrait of one of the world’s most influential artists.”
Matt, it’s great having you back on Scene. First of all, why the change of directions to historicals?
I needed a change of scene (of the crime) after four Omar Yussef books. In The Fourth Assassin, the fourth in the series, I felt Omar had said what he wanted to say to those who needed to hear. (In plot terms, that happened when he spoke to a UN conference and reprimanded the American delegation and the delegations from all the Arab states for their conduct toward the Palestinians.)
I had been champing at the bit to write about Mozart for a while. When I covered the intifada, I was often somewhat, ahem, nervous driving about the West Bank and through Palestinian towns. All the gunmen and Israeli tanks were not conducive to a nice drive. So I listened to Mozart all the time and he kept me calm. To escape the intifada entirely, my wife and I took a holiday in the mountains of the Salzkammergut, where we stumbled upon the small mountain village that had been home to Mozart’s sister Nannerl during her marriage to a provincial bureaucrat. I felt her presence there very strongly. I imagined how it must have been to have toured Europe and entertained crowned heads, only to be consigned to this beautiful but remote place, while her brother had his great career in the imperial capital.
The same thing happened with Caravaggio, I suppose. I was on a book tour in Madrid and I went to the Thyssen Museum. I’d seen some Caravaggio’s before and loved them. But when I saw his “Saint Catherine” in Madrid, I was utterly seduced (the model was a whore, after all) by his work, his story, the mystery of his end.
That’s really what made me write about Mozart and Caravaggio: they both had mysterious ends. Mozart, I’m quite sure, was poisoned. (He too was sure of that fact.) Caravaggio simply disappeared, and I’ve posited a theory of what happened to him that’s linked to the violence that marked his life — but also to the love that’s so often ignored, but which is so clearly bursting out of every one of his canvasses.
Any carryovers technique-wise from the Palestinian works and these new historicals?
Place was very important to me in my Palestinian novels. It defined them in many ways. That’s also true of my historical crime novels. I visited every place that’s still extant where Caravaggio and the Mozarts lived, worked and caroused. I really do feel they were there with me. Sounds odd perhaps, but if you’re open and creative, I think you can tune in to the creativity that emanates from Mozart’s music or Caravaggio’s paintings as if you were in the presence of the artists themselves. It works even better when you’re in a place where they lived.
I’m a big fan of historical crime fiction. I’d mention that The Silence by one J. Sydney Jones is one of the best books of the last couple of years. I enjoyed the way you worked actual historical figures into the plot in a way that wasn’t just gratuitous name-dropping.
Are we going to see any more Omar Yussef novels?
Not for the time being. My friend who was the basis for Omar’s character died a couple of years ago and I haven’t really felt like writing about him since. It isn’t that Omar died. Just that the spark that was with me when I wrote about him has, for now, died with my friend.
What wonderful novel are you at work on now?
I’m a couple of months away from finishing a thriller set in New York, Rome, and Lake Como. (Well, “around” Lake Como, rather than “in.”) I was in New York this summer researching it with the help of some Federal agents who were good enough to let me into their offices, to detail procedures, and to tell me frankly about the sometimes harsh effects on their lives of fighting crime. The research in Rome and around Como are, as you can imagine, terribly arduous. It’s tough writing international thrillers.
Learn more about Matt Rees at his homepage.