The tablet

Death of an archaeologist

Palestine Twilight Edward Fox
HarperCollins, £19.99
Tablet bookrhop price £16.99. Tel: 02083245634

Here is a book that can be read in three distinct ways: as an unusual kind of mystery story, what you might call an up-market whodunit; as an introduction to the history of the conflict over Palestine, with the emphasis on its archaeological aspect; or, as the story unfolds, as a painstaking investigation into a complex and still unsolved case involving murder and a so-far successful cover-up operation on the part of all the most likely suspects. .

Considered as a thriller, Palestine Twilight is gripping, a fast-moving tale of suspense and intrigue in which the characters are as distinctive as the background and which sets the reader's suspicions swinging this way and that as one layer after another is peeled back from the central enigma of "Who killed Albert Glock?"

Glock was an American archaeologist from a Mid-West missionary background whose restless spirit brought him to rebel against his narrow upbringing, with its "stubborn belief in the literalism of the Bible". Reaching out for the truth, he started on a lifetime of self-discovery, brilliantly explained by Edward Fox as a kind of odyssey in which, like Ulysses, he went on a long journey and underwent many trials, but at the end of which, instead of the fulfilment of a homecoming, his journey was brutally ended by an assassin's bullet.

To explain why anyone should want to murder a not very prominent archaeologist, an American citizen, a self-contained family man with no apparent connections or interests outside his work, Edward Fox (whose previous books include Obscure Kingdoms, a study of some of the world's last monarchies) explores the history of archaeology in what, in this context, is generally called the Holy Land. And so it was in the mind of Albert Glock until, having studied Hebrew, he escaped the stifling atmosphere of theological controversies in the American Mid- West by joining an expedition in 1962 to excavate a site near Nablus in Palestine, an area which was then under Jordanian rule, but which, five years later, was occupied by the Israelis along with the rest of what came to be known as the "West Bank" .

By that time the "Holy Land" had become something different for Albert Glock as he realised that archaeology in Palestine was a battleground in which the contestants were out to claim ownership, not only by conquest but also by the evidence -if it could be dug out of the ground -for ancient but unforgotten residence. So when he was appointed as

a research professor at the prestigious Albright Institute in Jerusalem, and in 1978 as its director, he found himself rejecting the views of those who had sent him to Palestine and engaging in a pattern of archaeological work which "was of interest not to biblical scholars in the United States, but to the Palestinian people themselves".

Uncomfortable with his formal status at the Albright Institute, Glock removed himself to the village of Bir Zeit, near Ramallah, aiming to establish an institute of Palestinian archaeology in the nearby University of Bir Zeit, the principal centre of higher education in the occupied territories. And then his troubles started, for at Bir Zeit he was living in a Palestinian community but under Israeli rule -and for quite different reasons both the Palestinians and the Israelis mistrusted his motives and ambitions. To some of the Palestinians with whom he had thrown in his lot, he was suspect as a foreigner who was meddling in their history, while to the Israelis the work he was doing cast doubt over the impression their archaeologists were striving to create that the West Bank, which the Israelis insisted on calling Judaea and Samaria, was a part of the "Land of Israel" and nothing else.

In the waters which swirled in this narrow passage between Scylla and Charybdis, Glock was swept up by currents he was powerless to control, until one day in January 1992 a still unidentified gunman stepped out of the shadows and shot him in the back of the head. A single witness saw a young man walking unhurriedly away, wearing jeans and a black-and-white-check Palestinian kaf-ftyeh. His identity has never been discovered; but the reasons which both sides have for suspecting that he was either a Palestinian or an Israeli -or a surrogate for one of them - provide Edward Fox with the material for this detailed and absorbing enquiry.

At first sight it was clearly an Israeli execution. The cold-blooded efficiency of the gunman (who left the scene in a car with Israeli number plates); the fact that the Israeli police (though they later denied this) took three hours to reach the scene of the crime from their local base half a mile away and that they never showed any interest in establishing the facts -this and the extreme improbability that in the heartland of Palestinian nationalism (which is the way the Israelis had always considered Bir Zeit, and with some reason) the Palestinians would kill a man who had more or less publicly identified himself with their struggle against the Israeli occupation, seemed to make it an open-and-shut case.

Not so, said the Israelis when Fox turned his attention to their side of the case. And indeed, when they set out to prove that it was a Palestinian extremist who had killed Glock, perhaps assuming that he was an American spy, the Israelis had some hard evidence to put forward. They had three suspects in their sights; but when Fox asked why they had not put any of them on trial, an uncomfortable fact emerged. The evidence had been obtained by torturing one of them, using among other techniques the Notorious Israeli invention of shabeh, which involved chaining a man to a small sloping chair with his hands bound behind him and a filthy bag over his head, and leaving him in this position for hours, sometimes a whole day. To explain to a court, which the American consul could be expected to attend, that this was how the alleged killer of an American citizen had been identified, would be embarrassing. So, when they had decided which of the three had pulled the trigger -according to this tainted evidence -they simply ambushed him and shot him dead.

Was he the criminal and, if so, why did he do it? For all the patient work of Edward Fox; and even when we have absorbed all the relevant detail which he has gathered and which he passes on to us in a prose as lucid as it is elegant -there is no way of knowing.