Book World: ‘Kingdom of Strangers,’ by Zoe Ferraris

July 8, 2012

The strangers in Zoe Ferraris’s engrossing new murder mystery, “Kingdom of Strangers,” are the exploited and often enslaved immigrant workers of Saudi Arabia. But Ferraris depicts the Saudis themselves as equally estranged, not from their country but from one another.

Detective Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani, for example, has never seen his daughter-in-law’s face. “Not a single piece of skin was showing anywhere on her body,” he notes, “her burqa was an impenetrable slab of black.” We soon learn, however, that her veiling is prompted by fear, not piety; Safannah’s burqa conceals a secret that could result in her execution.

Most of Ferraris’s characters are hiding something. Ibrahim is having an extramarital affair with a female colleague who has just disappeared. Katya, an unmarried laboratory technician who hopes to become a homicide detective, has to lie to work in a field open only to married women. And somewhere out there, a serial killer is hiding.

“The scene unfolded like an archaeological dig,” Ferraris writes of the first crime scene, “sprawling outward toward the desert. . . . Nineteen bodies in all.” They are the remains of young women — Filipinas, Sri Lankans and Indonesians — who have been murdered and mutilated. The number 19 seems to have Koranic significance, and the body parts are arranged to resemble letters drawn by a calligrapher.

Yet even among Jeddah’s homicide detectives, Saudi pride insists that the killer must be a foreigner. Indeed, “the department was quite proud of not having a specialist in serial killers.” Hence, the much-anticipated arrival at the Jeddah police headquarters of Dr. Charlie Becker. “There was a certain hunger in the men’s faces,” Ibrahim notices of his colleagues, “knowing that an American was going to enter the room to explain something only an American would know.”

That Dr. Becker is female causes the detectives shocked embarrassment and the reader mild apprehension. We seem to be in for a predictable drama that will show how an accomplished American woman wins the grudging respect of hostile primitives. Thankfully, Ferraris follows a more interesting route to the killer’s identity. Her heroine is not Charlie but Katya, the laboratory technician, who works clandestinely with Ibrahim to uncover connections between the murdered women and their link to Ibrahim’s missing lover.

A convincing, tangential friendship develops between Katya and Charlie, but “Kingdom of Strangers” never becomes a female buddy novel. Ferraris is more interested in capturing the claustrophobic, charged atmosphere of life in Saudi Arabia, and her ability to do so enlivens a plot that might otherwise seem a little routine.

The professional analysis of the serial killer’s mind and methods, the pathetic details of the victims’ lives, the intuitive breakthroughs, the final confrontation: All have become cliches of the genre, but Ferraris delivers them with skill and expert timing. The novel’s suspense, however, is most effectively heightened in intimate scenes that reveal the tensions of life in a theocracy. For example, having accepted the marriage proposal of a man who clearly loves her, Katya nonetheless “feels the beginnings of suffocation, sand heaping around her while she made no effort to push herself free.”

In a segregated society, where even a professional encounter between a man and a woman is potentially criminal, Ibrahim and Katya’s hunt for the serial killer — and for Ibrahim’s vanished lover — crosses treacherous ground. Colleagues spy on one another, and when it emerges that a senior police officer has been involved in the rape of an immigrant domestic servant (a common occurrence), the murder inquiry turns murkier.

Meanwhile, as Ibrahim frantically searches for his missing lover, he feels the noose of suspicion tightening around him. Suddenly, he is the one sitting in a freezing-cold interrogation room, waiting for his superiors to begin questioning him about his affair and, possibly, murder. “But as the hours crept by and the room grew colder, Ibrahim began to realize that they weren’t going to question him because they already had everything they needed.” At this ominous juncture, the pace of this otherwise sedate novel accelerates smoothly toward a denouement that is swift and satisfying.

bookworld@washpost.combookworld@washpost.com

Mundow is a freelance journalist and reviewer.

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