Friday, October 02, 2009
I keep coming across these mysteries that take place in exotic locales. This was another one, set in Saudi Arabia. A teenage girl called Nouf goes missing and eventually turns up dead. Because her family is rich and powerful it’s easy for them to bribe the coroner into suspending his investigation and recording the death as “accidental,” thus avoiding any hint of scandal. But Othman, Nouf’s favorite brother, wants the truth, and he arranges for two people to investigate on the sly. They are Nayir, the desert tracker initially hired by Nouf’s family to look for her, and Othman’s fiancée Katya, who works as a lab technician in the corrupt coroner’s office. This unlikely pair team up to find out what they can.
I can’t say that I know anything about the criminal justice system in Saudi Arabia. Is it really this easy for a prominent family to sweep something like this under the rug? Is there no one in charge who would force a real investigation? I guess not. Thus the author’s setup is a good one. She does the best with what the society offers in the way of investigative type characters. And she makes dramatic use of the cultural roadblocks our investigators encounter. The two cannot be seen in public together because they are not married to each other, which makes it difficult to visit places relevant to their investigation. Katya, the lab tech, must perform some of her forensic research at home because her working conditions are so constrained by gender segregation rules. Nayir is constantly struggling with guilt for his inability to erase his memory of Nouf’s naked body on the coroner’s table. These are not things that typically hamper U.S. or British cops!
A subtext is of course the status of women in Saudi Arabia. Katya is a rebel because she has chosen her own husband, and because she insists on working in a lab instead of using her chemistry PhD to teach at a women’s college. Nouf is a contradiction: she rode a jet ski in an abaya, she agreed to an arranged marriage, yet she routinely disguised herself as a boy to scoot around Jedda on a motorcycle. Nayir, at first extremely pious and traditional, grows through his contact with Katya and Nouf into a man who can see a woman’s point of view. All this adds up to an interesting story but not really an interesting mystery – the solution is a bit of a letdown, an afterthought, a little dangling bit that we don’t really care about as much as we care about Nouf’s life and what will eventually happen to Nayir and Katya.
(Book 34, 2009)