Book Of A Lifetime: The King Must Die, By Mary Renault

In early 1999, King Hussein fell sick on his return from cancer treatment in the US. I was Middle East correspondent for The Scotsman. Many colleagues with bigger expense budgets were already in Jordan on death watch. I poked through a second-hand bookshop on a narrow lane in Jerusalem, wondering if I ought to go too.

I picked up a 1958 edition of The King Must Die by Mary Renault. The title seemed like a good joke to share with my fellow hacks. It decided me. I paid a few shekels for it and went off happily to pack for a trip across the Jordan Valley.

Renault took the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur and constructed a novel of the historical circumstances which may have lain behind it. In the novel, the young hero becomes a champion "bull-dancer" in Crete, leaping over charging animals, and escapes to become king in Athens. Renault's sensitive characterisation and historical sense of place hooked me. In her day (she died in 1978) other writers often suggested Renault was really a male homosexual, assuming that a woman couldn't write so vividly about men. I've striven for that depth of empathy in writing about a foreign culture in my novels.

Renault's approach to Greek history shaped my Palestinian crime novels. Writing at a time when frank examinations of contemporary homosexuality – Renault was lesbian – were taboo, she made her readers look again at love between people of the same sex. She placed that love in the context of history and stories we all think we know – the Minotaur, the trial of Socrates, Alexander's conquests – and then forced us to accept that the heroes of that period had a starkly different view of sexuality. In other words, she redirected us from the myth to the reality.

I've tried to do that with the Palestinians, who are stereotyped in the news as victims or as terrorists, and so I have focused instead on real people I've known, aiming to get at the depth of their emotions.

As for Hussein, he succumbed to lymphoma. That night, after deadline, reporters packed the bar of the Intercontinental, sucking on fat Habanas and downing Laphroaig, excited by a get-together with colleagues usually spread across the region. The next day, Hussein's cortege passed through sombre crowds in the wind and rain. I happened to laugh at a remark by another journalist. An old Bedouin turned tearful, red eyes on me. I was ashamed of my laughter. For him, this wasn't a news story or even history. It was the passing of someone who had been important in his life.

It's his emotion that I remember about that day, rather than the newspaper prognostications for the political future of the Middle East, and emotion is the heart of a novel, even a political novel. Throughout the funeral, The King Must Die was in my pocket.

Matt Rees's 'The Fourth Assassin' is published by Atlantic

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk