"City of Veils," Zoë Ferraris' mystery novel set in Saudi Arabia, offers a sensitive look at life in the city of Jeddah. The novel has a strong sense of place — the author knows the territory. Ferraris lived in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, and her plot, when focused, offers some surprising twists.
A follow-up to Ferraris' first novel, "Finding Nouf" (winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2008), "City of Veils" returns to the previous novel's two main characters, desert guide Nayir and Katya, a tech in the coroner's office. The two have great chemistry, and they serve to show the cultural differences that separate conservative Muslim countries from what is regarded as the modern world. They give us a sense of how people cope with the claustrophobic social conditions in their country.
The mystery begins when the body of a woman, later identified as a documentary filmmaker, is washed ashore near the port city of Jeddah. Katya and Nayir, in the great tradition of amateur detectives, assert themselves into the investigation. The victim's connection to a mysterious Koranic scholar and a missing American bodyguard may provide motives for the crime. The bodyguard's wife, also American, joins the investigation. The action crests with a desert chase scene, and the puzzle is solved with enough of a surprise to satisfy mystery fans.
The American characters, especially Mirriam Walker, the bodyguard's wife, take up a large part of the book. This is a fatal flaw. They just aren't that interesting. Her husband comes off as a dolt, not worth searching for. Mirriam's show of courage during a desert chase scene makes no sense, given her lack of backbone and physicality in earlier chapters. The chase scene is a serious misstep, moving the novel from its elegant beginnings into romance novel, sheik of Araby territory.
Other characters seem only half drawn. The Koranic scholar, introduced early, disappears for much of the novel. His return is merely device. A possibly interesting villain is lost in the shuffle. There is a nod in the direction of making the police inspector a deeper character, and this could go somewhere, but it doesn't.
There are elements that keep "City of Veils" from being a top-to-bottom failure. Ferraris has a good feel for her two main characters and a beautiful sense of poetic timing. In one especially cinematic scene Katya and Nayir encounter a public whipping while driving through the city. As we watch them react to the scene, we get to know them — the more progressive Katya, Nayir's respect for tradition, their mutual attraction: "They had another hour together at least, and so he immunized himself by cracking open the window and cranking up the cold air, and turning his attention to a silent prayer." Other descriptions are true to noir traditions: "They drove the rest of the way in darkness, punctuated by the occasional pink neon sign announcing all night schwarma parlors by the side of the road."
A reworking of a typical police procedural scene is brilliant. It's a twist on the good cop-bad cop setup. Here, the claustrophobic surroundings of an interrogation room represent the confines of the culture. When Katya flips up her burka and grills a suspect, a new type of tough detective is born. The dialogue here is crisp, tough, perfect.
But the novel's finish is a too obviously romantic, undercutting the toughness of earlier scenes. Sadly, a jumble of uninteresting characters and too many forgettable scenes make this a severely flawed book.
Hill is the author, most recently, of "The Incredible Double."