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Mystery of the Saudi desert

BOOK REVIEW

Finding Nouf A Novel Zoe Ferraris Houghton Mifflin: 306 pp., $24

June 20, 2008|Sarah Weinman | Special to The Times
  • Women in the ultra-conservative Muslim powerhouse of Saudi Arabia navigate through life amid harsh restrictions imposed by a rigid interpretation of Islam and stringent tradition.
Women in the ultra-conservative Muslim powerhouse of Saudi Arabia navigate… (Hassan Ammar AFP/Getty…)

ONE OF the best developments in contemporary crime fiction of late is how willing, even eager, writers are to explore uncharted territory. What with the mini-boom of translated Scandinavian novels by Arnaldur Indridason, Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbo (to name just a handful), Deon Meyer's and Michael Stanley's criminal investigations in the wilds of Africa and Matt Beynon Rees' elegant mysteries set in Palestinian territories, readers have an embarrassment of global riches to choose from.

Now there is "Finding Nouf," the fictional outcome of San Franciscan Zoe Ferraris' habitation in Saudi Arabia for several years after the first Gulf War. Even if that information had been left off the jacket flap, it would be readily apparent; only a writer with experience both as a part of and apart from Saudi culture could have crafted such a novel.

Nayir ash-Sharqi is a Palestinian born and raised in Saudi Arabia, an outsider with an insider's understanding of his home country. He's also a guide, often hired by the wealthy Shrawi family, and his current task is most unpleasant: to track down the whereabouts of their 16-year-old daughter, Nouf, who went missing just three days before her wedding. Her body is discovered in the desert. When Nayir goes to the coroner to bring her home to her family, the sight of her corpse fills him with horror, tinged with an overdeveloped sense of modesty -- which soon gives way to curiosity as to how she died. A laboratory technician, Katya Hijazi, suspects murder. Katya is connected to the case through her engagement to Nouf's older brother Othman, and she teams with Nayir to look into Nouf's death. The duo's investigations uncover family secrets so tragic that murder is the least of it.

Ferraris does not skimp on the structural elements necessary for a good mystery, imbuing the story with escalating suspense that all but masks a telegraphed revelation of the murderer's identity. But "Finding Nouf" is more concerned with exposing a simmering world of heightened emotion held in check by the culture's restrictive and iron-clad rule. Nayir may chant "Allah forgive me for imagining her ankles" early in the search for Nouf, and he may be resigned to longing for female companionship he might never have, but he also approves of the order imposed by Saudi society. "It's designed to protect women," he tells Katya. "All the prescriptions for modesty and wearing the veil, for decent behavior and abstinence before marriage -- isn't the goal to prevent this very sort of thing from happening?"

"In theory, I agree," Katya responds, "but you have to admit that those same prescriptions can sometimes cause the degradation people fear the most."

That fear of degradation persists throughout the book, as Ferraris shows how the clash of tradition and desire, especially for women, is fraught with danger both hidden and overt. Katya's decision to follow up her doctorate with a proper scientific career is viewed not with pride but disdain by family and friends, especially the women. They question her leaving her widowed and retired father to fend for himself; they counsel her to watch what she eats, lest her fiance choose another. The idea that Nouf may have wanted to leave Saudi Arabia behind for greener, more democratic pastures is unthinkable, in a culture where women are still expected to marry young and men to take multiple wives. Even Nayir's joining forces with Katya requires subterfuge and deception -- quickly derailed when a stranger harshly rebukes him for letting his "wife" dress so immodestly.

The Saudi Arabian setting also allows Ferraris to twist the plot in ways that would horrify aficionados of American crime fiction. For example, Katya's forensic investigation of Nouf's death -- kept secret from nosy co-workers and a boss more interested in moving on and covering up than in seeking justice -- requires her to collect evidence and conduct DNA testing on her own time and off the books. In the United States, Katya's actions would rightly be challenged on admissibility grounds. But in Saudi Arabia, where justice is more often administered on a family-to-family basis or according to sharia law, Katya's illicit means are not only justified by the prospect of unmasking Nouf's killer but are necessary and believable in the context of a cloistered culture.

Ferraris writes with authority about how Saudi insiders and outsiders alike perceive the United States: "America represented all that was free and exciting . . . a destination worth erasing your life for, . . . [T]his place, this city, this desert, this sea, weren't the material of a young girl's dreams." With equal authority, she stakes her own claim on the world map, opening Saudi Arabia for mystery fans to reveal the true minds and hearts of its denizens.

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Sarah Weinman writes "Dark Passages," an online monthly mystery and suspense column, at www.latimes.com/books. She blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com.

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