A mystery shrouded by the Muslim world

A debut novel by Zoe Ferraris delves into the social complexity of Saudi Arabia.

Finding Nouf By Zoe Ferraris Houghton Mifflin 305 pp. $24

A teenage girl disappears from home, and her body is found in the desert. Cause of death: drowning.
It’s a great set-up for a mystery, but Zoë Ferraris takes things one crucial step further in her entirely enjoyable debut mystery, Finding Nouf. The desert in question is the Saudi Arabian, and Nouf, the daughter of a prominent family in the seaside town of Jeddah, was pregnant. The Shrawis use their influence to have the case closed, and then ask the man who led the search for Nouf to quietly look into her death.

Gentle, hulking, and religiously conservative, the Palestinian-born Niyar al-Sharqi knows more about Bedouin tradition than the pampered oil barons he leads on designer treks so they can get a taste of their nomadic roots. Niyar feels obligated to the family, and to the girl he feels he failed. Also, he can’t help thinking, “when a woman drowns in the largest sand desert in the world, there ought to be an equally remarkable explanation.”

But while examining the evidence at the site where Nouf’s body was found is the work of an afternoon, Niyar finds his investigation hampered by his adopted country’s strict laws governing propriety. He unwillingly teams up with the fiancée of Nouf’s brother, Katya Hijaza, a “brazen” employee at the medical examiner’s office who’s determined to find justice for the young girl she’d hoped to call sister.

Columbo, Niyar’s hero, never had to operate under conditions like those facing the novice detective. For starters, he can’t question any female witnesses. Oh, and autopsies are absolutely verboten. While Niyar has access to some forensic evidence, courtesy of Katya’s stealthy hands, comparing notes with his partner is fraught with difficulty, since the two can’t legally meet. Meanwhile, Katya could easily lose her job (and possibly her fiancé) if her moonlighting is discovered. Plus, try investigating anything when, by law, you can’t drive.

Ferraris does more than just use Saudi Arabia’s rigorous separation of the sexes to throw roadblocks in her investigator’s way: They lie at the heart of the mystery. Niyar instinctively knows that finding out what happened to Nouf means understanding her in a way that he’s ill-equipped to handle, given his complete isolation from females of any age.

“Nayir joked with his friends that everything he knew about women had been gleaned from rumor, the Quran, and an assortment of bootleg television videos: ‘Happy Days,’ ‘Columbo,’ and ‘WKRP in Cincinnati.’ ” (Western female readers will, on more than one occasion, want to smack Niyar upside the head, but both Ferraris and Katya have patience and faith in his underlying decency.) His investigation turns into a finely tuned character study that elevates “Finding Nouf” from mere page-turner status.

Agatha Christie once sent Hercule Poirot on a trek through the Middle East (mirroring her own real-life travels). But the American Ferraris, who lived in Saudi Arabia, does far more with the local setting and culture than the grande dame of mysteries ever did. She details everything from the Byzantine politics governing upper-class women’s sitting rooms to a study of desert footprints that would delight Sherlock Holmes to a heat so hot it melts sandals and requires drivers to carry pot holders to protect against third-degree burns from car doors. And she also delves into such quixotic operations as a jacket bazaar, where wealthy Saudis go to buy everything from parkas to full-length furs.

“Niyar had to admit, buying outerwear in the world’s hottest climate was a little weird. The vendors didn’t seem to realize the futility of their profession, because they embraced with a passion rivaled only by that of the fireplace and central-heating vendors in a separate market on the other side of town.”

Some of the most beautiful passages deal with the joys of daily living, such as Niyar’s beloved marina, where “a vendor’s large silver truck was always parked at the marina gates, and at precisely 6 a.m. the smells of fresh pita, of ful beans cooked in garlic, and of the best coffee in the world came wafting from the truck’s windows.”

Far-flung mysteries have been the thing for a few years, but “Finding Nouf” is both particularly well-crafted and readily accessible for American readers. Just make sure you turn up the air-
conditioning before sitting down to read.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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