KINGDOM OF STRANGERS by Zoe Ferraris is the third book in what informally might be called the Katya Hijazi series. Set in Jeddah, which is the major urban center of western Saudi Arabia, it provides a glimpse behind the veil, if you will, of one of the world’s most interesting and repressive cultures in the context of a murder mystery.
The novel begins when a random shift of wind uncovers a hitherto unrevealed mass gravesite in the Saudi desert. The investigators called to the scene discover the corpses of 19 women, all of whom have had their hands severed from their bodies. By the time the initial investigation is concluded, it is obvious that a serial killer has been operating in Jeddah for well over a decade. Ibrahim Zahrani is assigned as the lead investigator on the case, which is one of such magnitude that it can make or break a law enforcement career.
"While the characters and their respective situations are finely drawn, it is the backdrop of Saudi Arabia and the way things work there that make this a compulsive and addictive reading experience, one that you will not soon forget."
Unfortunately, he is distracted by a couple of personal dilemmas. He has discovered that his son’s wife is not entirely who she appears to be at first blush, and keeps a huge secret all her own. Far more significant to Zahrani, though, is that he keeps a mistress, Sabria, who has been estranged from her husband for several years. Zahrani himself is in a loveless marriage, one from which his passion has long fled, and is truly and deeply in love with Sabria.
Zahrani is thrown into a tailspin when Sabria suddenly disappears without an explanation. He can hardly launch an investigation for fear that his illicit relationship will be revealed, and not because he will lose face at the office: the punishment for adultery in Saudi Arabia is death. With few if any other choices, he quietly brings the matter of Sabria’s disappearance to Katya Hijazi to investigate. Hijazi, a forensic technician, hopes to be promoted to a position as a police detective; she feels that quietly aiding Zahrani, while unofficially investigating the murders on her own time to the extent possible, will provide her with implicit and explicit advantages in obtaining her girl.
For the most part, the narrative is divided about equally between the activities of Zahrani and Hijazi, both of whom are hamstrung in their goals by the religious culture that has woven itself into society. That does not prevent the citizens, including Zahrani and Hijazi, from going over it or around it when they cannot go through it. Still, the failure of both of them appears to be inevitable. The discovery of Zahrani’s emotional indiscretions seems to be all but assured, while Hijazi harbors her own secret, one that almost assuredly will end her career if it’s discovered. They are seemingly headed down two very different paths of assured destruction, when each are offered resolution of a sort. The question that remains and is resolved near the book’s conclusion is whether such will come in time, and if each of them has the courage to accept the solution they are offered.
Ferraris resided in Saudi Arabia beginning in the latter part of the 20th century and, as is obvious from KINGDOM OF STRANGERS, knows the territory of which she writes, culturally and socially as well as geographically. While the characters and their respective situations are finely drawn, it is the backdrop of Saudi Arabia and the way things work there that make this a compulsive and addictive reading experience, one that you will not soon forget.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 10, 2012