KINGDOM OF STRANGERS

Written by Zoe Ferraris

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.


KINGDOM OF STRANGERS
Little Brown
RRP: £12.99
Released: 7th June 21012
Trade Paperback

This book comes as a revelation to one whose previous acquaintance with the Middle East was derived solely from Michael Pearce's delightful novels. But Pearce is historical so the eccentricities of behaviour that he depicts may be accepted as exotic aberrations.

The culture exposed in Kingdom of Strangers is current and in some respects appalling. We knew about the obvious abuses: women not allowed to drive, to walk alone, to show their skin; we knew that there is capital punishment for adultery as well as homosexuality, drug dealing and murder. What we didn't know are the exquisite refinements and hypocrisy of sexual apartheid in the richest of oil countries. The all-women shopping malls where even the shop assistants wear Armani, the infrastructure serviced by immigrants: mostly women, who live in shanty towns rife with crime and disease while their employers revel in opulence.

Into this maelstrom of sun-blasted ferment Ferraris introduces a pertinent crime: nineteen handless corpses buried in the desert outside Jeddah on the Red Sea, and a police force reminiscent of our own but with differences. The chief investigator is Zahrani, a good man flawed. He is supported, unobtrusively, by Katya, an ambitious lab. worker who aims to be a detective but who must tread like Agag in this man's world. There are no women outside the laboratory until an FBI profiler arrives, seconded from the US, and turns out to be a woman. There is a hiccup here. One expects her to slice through the macho establishment like a flaming sword but that promise is not fulfilled: she pales beside Katya who carries the action. Other characters are wanting but the plot is good. Threads are neatly interwoven, starting with the multiple corpses, shortly identified as those of housemaids. Suspicion is directed to employers, which is tricky when they are so rich that authorities turn a blind eye to their hunting of endangered desert bustards with falcons, a pastime  on a par with the rape of housemaids.

 Poor ineffectual Zahrani (Lieutenant Colonel Inspector) who respects women and doesn't pray five times a day but has a chaotic home life - his in-laws arrayed against him - plods along behind the serial killer, devastated and distracted by the sudden disappearance of his adored mistress. Threatened with decapitation if his adultery is discovered, his only hope of deliverance is Katya on a white Arab, metaphorically speaking.

A good book with no explicit sex or violence but redolent of both: a binary miasma permeating every thought and action of the characters. Read, ladies among you, and be thankful the bell never tolled for you.

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