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by ZoŽ Ferraris
Little, Brown, June 2012
320 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 1408703653

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Lovers of detective fiction will be aware of just how great a range that label can encompass. Author ZoŽ Ferraris' brilliant tale of a serial killer, and the disappearance of a police detective's mistress, is set in Saudi Arabia, where tight restrictions govern every interaction between men and women. Negotiating simple tasks can be problematic and the difficult matter of unravelling a series of heinous crimes is substantially complicated by the strict interpretation of Islamic doctrine.

By chance, a body is found in the desert outside Jeddah. Investigation of the site reveals a total of nineteen bodies, all of young women and all with their hands missing. Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani is assigned to the case, but has little confidence in his staff, most of whom can think no further than to blame foreigners. Luckily, he has in his office Karya Hijazi, a young laboratory technician frustrated by the lack of opportunities offered to women, and determined to bring her insight and dedication to bear on finding the killer. She makes significant discoveries, confounding male detectives who seek to shut her out.

In a side plot, Zahrani's mistress goes missing, and he cannot make enquiries in appropriate places without the assistance of a woman. He turns to Karya in desperation, who again through persistence and clear thinking begins to discover the circumstances behind the disappearance. The story here is bound up with female foreign workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, who have few rights and easily fall prey to the unscrupulous.

As the main stories of the book develop, Ferraris explores the underlying sexual complication through events in the lives of the chief characters. Karya is contemplating marriage, and through her thoughts and those of her prospective partner Nayir we come to understand how hazardous the decision is for both of them - Katya for the restrictions a traditional husband may place on her police work, and the spouse for the strains a non-traditional wife may place on his status - and above all for their difficulties in even discussing such problems.

As for Zahrani, he fears for the mistress he loves but cannot even be open about seeking for her, and is trapped in a loveless marriage from which he cannot escape. His son has been similarly trapped, and his daughter-in-law is pregnant by a liaison outside her marriage, which unless extraordinary measures are taken is likely to result in a judicial killing.

The way in which the distinctive mores of the country are woven into KINGDOM OF STRANGERS makes it clear that Ferraris is familiar not only with the laws and their consequences, but the concessions necessary by the average man or woman on the street to adapt, and the distortions in behaviour consequent upon such pressures.

ß Chris Roberts is a retired manager of shopping centres in Hong Kong, and now lives in Bristol, primarily reading.

Reviewed by Chris Roberts, May 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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