In 1992, Albert Glock, once a Lutheran pastor in the town of Normal, Illinois, and subsequently an archaeologist specialising in the Ottoman era, was murdered on the doorstep of an academic colleague's house in the West Bank town of Zir Beit. His killers were two young men wearing sneakers, blue jeans and Arab checked scarves or kaffiyah. That, it is said, is the standard dress code for members of Israeli death squads while at work.
At the beginning of the book, there is a photograph of Glock in the field, a picture which would be comical if it were not so forlorn. There he is, a wide-hipped, high-belted American professor, eagerly scribbling notes about the past that lies around him in the Palestinian fields. He is wearing white shoes and is standing on a pile of white rocks: by a trick of the light this gives the impression that he is levitating a few feet above the plain. Who on earth, you think, would want to kill this harmless academic dervish from the Midwest?
But this is the Middle East, where, after decades of war, occupation and intifada, the rupture in human relations is so great that it sometimes seems that almost everyone wants to kill someone else. Archaeologists are not exempted as targets - far from it. For years, the control of archaeological activity has been the symbol of authority in Israel and Palestine. Archaeology is central to both the Jewish and Arab arguments. Fox points out: "To own the history of the land is to own the land itself".
First on Fox's list of suspects for Glock's murder are Israelis. There is the strange circumstance of the Israeli reaction to the death. Normally when someone was shot to death in the occupied West Bank, the response was immediate and overwhelming. Army and police descended in minutes: a curfew was declared; house-to-house searches followed; young men were rounded up.
But in this case, three hours passed before the military arrived. It is a measure of the fear of the Palestinian population, even middle-class professionals like Glock's colleagues, that they did not dare move the body. It lay in the rain until nightfall. The most the onlookers could do was scare away cats and dogs attracted by the smell of blood.
Why this delay? In order, say the Palestinians, to give the gunmen time to get away. But why should the authorities want gunmen to get away from or with the murder of Glock? The first (and simplest) reason given is that his archaeology was completely opposed to the aims of Israeli archaeology. Glock's field of study, the Ottoman era, estab lished the long occupation of the land by Arab peasantry. The Israeli approach tends to overlook (and at times bulldoze away) all evidence of the region's history except the Biblical, which demonstrates that modern Israel is not a foreign transplant but a restoration.
Next it is the Palestinians' turn to come under scrutiny in this exhaustive whodunit. Glock was after all a foreigner, a westerner, an American. In the paranoid and xenophobic atmosphere of the West Bank, numerous eyes watched him with suspicion as he came and went through army road blocks. Was he a spy? Was his presence alone a kind of blasphemy against Islam? His brand of archaeology also made enemies among the Arabs, for while he concentrated on the everyday life of generations of peasants, some Palestinians wanted a nationalistic archaeology, like the Israelis', but one which emphasised the splendour of the Islamic past, of the Caliph Omar and the Dome of the Rock.
There is no space here to indicate all the variety and shades of enmity that Glock, the apparently harmless hoverer above dusty fields, managed to inspire. Fox carefully examines them all - and eliminates many. But he comes up with no absolute verdict as to guilt.
In this sense the book may seem a failure, not so much a whodunit as a whodidn't. Yet it is well worth reading. Bloody, dreary and depressing as the daily news from the region may be, we cannot turn our eyes away. The place is too important, not only for its past and present symbols, but for what is yet to come. A book like Fox's cuts at an unexpected oblique angle to the centre of the problem. There are some marvellous descriptions of a kind the news bulletins can rarely provide. Here for instance, following a lead in the Glock case, Fox visits an Israeli court on the West Bank:
"Young [Israeli] soldiers, men and women, in baggy green uniforms ambled casually through the corridors with the carefree air of college students. Their offices had posters on the walls of rock stars and soccer players. Meanwhile, squatting on the ground outside, the [Arab] families of defendants waited to learn the fate of their sons and husbands: would it be five years, three years, one year in prison? There were no acquittals in an Israeli military court. The only unknown was the length of the sentence.
"Each world was oblivious to the other. It even looked as if these worlds had a different climate: the Israelis wore a single layer of cotton, while the Palestinians were heavily dressed in wool, the women in long thick dresses, the men in jackets with sweaters underneath, as if the ambient temperature in their world were about 20 degrees lower."
Two worlds, two temperatures . . . in fact two histories have collided here, causing violent weather, and no one knows how the storm will end. This book is an original and calm analysis of its far-off origins and recent status.
The Murder of
Dr Albert Glock
and the Archaeology
of the Holy Land
by Edward Fox, HarperCollins £19.99, 283 pages FT Bookshop £16.99