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Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011

Murder and mystery behind the burqa


CITY OF VEILS, by Zoe Ferraris. Little, Brown and Company, 2010, 393 pp., $24.99 (hardcover)

One device frequently used by writers of mystery fiction is the intrusion of some force to obstruct the investigator's job, which sometimes takes the form of a powerful adversary or a repressive political system.

In Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park," for example, a Moscow homicide cop finds his efforts stifled by the Soviet system. Philipp Kerr's series of novels featuring private eye Bernie Gunther, initially set in prewar Berlin, show the near-impossibility of impartial investigations of cases due to pressures from Nazi doctrinaires.

In "City of Veils," Zoe Ferraris' second novel set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the protagonists must circumvent a different set of predicaments: social restrictions that prohibit men from talking to women with whom they are not related.

Nayir ash-Sharqi is a Palestinian guide who leads wealthy Arabs on expeditions to the desert. He's a devout Muslim and a man you would trust with your life in a blinding sandstorm.

Katya Hijazi is a forensic scientist employed by the Jeddah coroner's office. She lives in constant fear of dismissal because she falsified her marital status to get the job.

What is Eric's relationship with the enigmatic Quranic scholar Appolo Mabus? And how are these two non-Saudis connected to the brutally beaten female corpse found washed up in a lonely spot at a local beach?

While investigating the murder, Nayir and Katya are obliged to meet surreptitiously, or risk harangues (or worse, a smack from a camel whip) by over zealous members of the religious police. Neither character is intellectually brilliant, nor out to alter the social status quo, but they are both highly motivated to see justice done. They also like each other — which is actually a bigger problem for the pious Nayir than it is for Katya, who was briefly engaged to Nayir's employer.

In a subplot, Eric Walker, an American security consultant working in Jeddah, has disappeared. Walker's American wife Miriam can't find him and doesn't know to whom to turn for help.

Ferraris writes from personal experience, having lived in Jeddah after marrying a Saudi national of Palestinian-Bedouin background. She provides fascinating insights into people's daily lives in Saudi Arabia, where the all-embracing role of religion must seem nearly incomprehensible to people from secular countries.

Yet for all that's said and done, murder is a crime and justice — dispensed with a sharp sword, in a mosque parking lot — is swift and unfailingly fatal.

With the Middle East figuring so much in the news lately, it's a real pleasure to see that some well-penned whodunits are being set there.

Readers may also enjoy Ferraris' previous work, "Finding Nouf" (2008), in which Nayir and Katya make their literary debut. Ferraris' series set in Saudi Arabia joins Matt Beynon Rees' novels featuring Omar Yussef, a Palestinian school teacher with a knack for solving crimes.

Rees' latest, "The Fourth Assassin," was released this month and we hope to have a review on this page soon.



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