This is a mystery set in contemporary Saudi Arabia. Nayir ash-Sharqi, a desert guide, is asked by his friend, Othman Shrawi, to find his sixteen-year-old sister, Nouf. After her body is discovered, Nayir sets out to find out how she died; he is assisted in his investigation by Katya Hijazi, a forensic technician who also happens to be Othman’s fiancée.
The mystery is satisfactory, although the identity of one person guilty of a crime is very obvious early on because the implication of this person solves a relationship problem for Nayir and Katya. What is most interesting about the book is its glimpse into Saudi Arabia’s restrictive Muslim culture. Various aspects of Saudi culture are interwoven into the narrative: the importance of hospitality, attitudes towards Americans and immigrants, segregation of men and women, gender roles.
For Nayir and Katya to work together, they must resort to deception and subterfuge which make Nayir uncomfortable. As a traditional conservative Muslim, he has rather rigid ideas about female modesty and proper behaviour. His interaction with Katya forces him to become more flexible as she provides commentary on the realities of life for women. Nayir argues that “’All the prescriptions for modesty and wearing the veil, for decent behavior and abstinence before marriage’” are intended to protect women, but Katya counters that “’those same prescriptions can sometimes cause the degradation people fear the most’” (219).
In many ways, the main conflict is between tradition and desire. Nayir wants to marry, yet his religious beliefs restrict his contact with single women. Katya would like to be a wife and mother, but she also wants a career, so she seeks “’a husband who respects [her] work’” (217). It also becomes clear that Nouf also wanted the freedom to make choices: “’Yes, options . . . I think that’s what Nouf wanted’” (218).
I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy mysteries in an exotic locale which is gradually made familiar.
Two more books have been added to this series: City of Veils and Kingdom of Strangers.