White Masks, the latest book from Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, kicks off in something of a noirish mode. Reading the newspaper one morning, the book's narrator learns of the murder of a neighborhood man, Khalil Ahmad Jaber, whose mutilated body was found stripped to the waist and dumped in a Beirut street. The narrator (who remains nameless) finds himself unaccountably curious about this killing and embarks on his own investigation.
It's an opening that seems to set things up for a detective story, but almost immediately, the narrator loses the thread. Roving through the war-ravaged city, he inspects medical reports, tracks down eyewitnesses, interviews doctors, housekeepers, soldiers, widows—anyone who might have crossed Jaber's path. The book is a frame tale, the narrator's search for clues the setting for the many narratives—invariably tragic—he comes across on his way.
But what to do with all of these narratives? This becomes the central dilemma of the novel—one that the narrator ultimately answers with what essentially amounts to a helpless shrug. "This is no tale,"he cautions at the book's beginning, and he's no sort of gumshoe. Each lead draws him deeper into wartime Beirut—a maze of absurd violence, unlucky turns, chance brutality—but none bring him any closer to solving the crime he set out investigating.
Of course, there isn't a solution. How do you draw out of a civil war something so tidy as a murder mystery? Our narrator isn't just the book's detective, he's its author as well, and too honest, it turns out, to piece together a convincing story. There are stories, lovely, quietly told stories of fallen sons, desperate widows, faithless husbands, crooked dentists, disillusioned militants... But they add up to nothing; they reveal only themselves. They ensnare and entangle and disorient, and then once they're done, spin you around several times and send you back into the street more bewildered than you were before. Which is precisely the point.