Little, Brown & Company, 2010, 393 pages
When the body of a brutally murdered and severely disfigured woman is found on the beach in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Detective Osama Ibrahim dreads investigating another unsolvable housemaid murder—unpleasantly common in a city where the veils of conservative Islam keep women as anonymous in life as the victim is in death. Digging deeper, however, an ambitious lab-tech named Katya discovers that the body is not that of a disobedient servant, but Leila Nawar, a rebellious young filmmaker who has made more than a few enemies with her probing documentaries on religious hypocrisy and sexuality.
City of Veils is a murder mystery set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A badly-beaten "Jane Doe" is found on the beach, and both detective Osama Ibrahim and forensic lab tech Katya Hijazi initially assume she is a housemaid killed by her employer. It turns out that the victim was actually a young filmmaker who upset more than a few of her subjects. The mystery of Leila Nawar's murder unwinds in a fairly typical manner for all novels in this genre: red herrings, multiple suspects, and an intertwined secondary plot involving an American woman whose American husband has disappeared, leaving her almost helpless in a country where she can't drive and doesn't speak the language.
The other convention of murder mysteries is the interweaving of the investigators' personal lives into the story. Police detective Osama Ibrahim is a fairly progressive Saudi man. He's only nominally a Muslim and thinks of himself as enlightened and modern. He loves his wife and encourages her in her career. Then he finds out that she has been taking birth control pills for the past two years while he thought they were trying to have another baby. This marital conflict is introduced early and nags at Ibrahim's mind during the course of the book, but otherwise his wife is mostly a non-character, which I thought was a clever and subtle statement on Ferraris's part, though I'm not sure if it was intentional.
Katya Hijazi is a single woman working for the coroner's office. Both the police and forensics labs are starting to hire more women, because the strict rules of Saudi conduct require female officers and technicians to handle female suspects and victims. Of course, they are always subordinate to their male supervisors, but the female characters in this book are quite active, not at all the passive veiled mannequins many people assume Saudi women to be. Katya has been lying to her coworkers about being married because it would be improper for a single woman to be working and mingling with men. She is also being courted by a pious young man named Nayir Sharqi, who is supposedly another main character, though I found him to be fairly boring and he only played a secondary role in the story.
It has to be hard to avoid being didactic or judgmental when writing about Saudi Arabia, one of the harshest, most unforgivingly conservative Muslim societies in the world. Zoe Ferraris doesn't shy away from the ugly side of Saudi society, but City of Veils mostly just points a camera at the characters. The characters themselves have plenty to say about what they don't like about Saudi society, but mostly they just deal with it. Osama and Katya both dislike the religious fanatics and the Saudi upper class whose money insulates them from the strict religious requirements imposed on everyone else, but neither of them are exactly pro-Western radicals who want to tear down Saudi society, and when Westerners lecture them on how terrible and oppressive their country is, they react the way anyone does when foreigners tell you your country stinks.
Zoe Ferraris's credentials for writing about Saudi Arabia are that she was married to a Saudi man and lived there for a while, so yes, she's a foreigner writing about a culture she can only be somewhat familiar with. As a murder mystery, City of Veils was only average, but the details about Saudi life were interesting and believable. It's not just Bedouins and burkas, which is about the only image most Westerners get of the country. Ferraris's writing was smooth and she tells an enjoyable story, so if you like the genre and are interested in the setting, I'll recommend it as a pretty good read.
I only found out after I read this that City of Veils is actually the second book in a series (the first one, Finding Nouf, apparently stars Nayir). This was never apparent to me while reading it. I never felt like I was missing anything that had been explained elsewhere, so it works fine as a stand-alone novel.
Verdict: The hook for this otherwise typical mystery is that it's set in Saudi Arabia, but I found it fresh and interesting, with characters who were mostly likable (except of course the religious police, whom nobody in Saudi Arabia seems to like) and a straightforward approach to a setting that could easily be either exoticized or turned into a long screed about misogyny-and-terrorism-and-oil-and-camel