Kingdom of Strangers by Zoë Ferraris(Little Brown)
The bodies of nineteen women are discovered buried in the Saudi Arabian desert, all with their hands cut off, evidence that a serial killer has been operating for over a decade. Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani is given the case, but is distracted when his mistress Sabria goes missing.
He can’t report her disappearance – that would reveal their relationship, and adultery is punishable by public beheading in Saudi. The police wouldn’t bother finding Sabria if they knew about the affair either, because no one cares about ‘prostitutes’.
So Zahrani asks Katya Hijazi, one of the few female officers, to help him. This is a great risk for Katya. Helping an adulterer is a breach of propriety that could disgrace her, or get her fired. But she is an ambitious woman, and by helping Zahrani she hopes to play a role in the serial killer case as well.
Kingdom of Strangers is the third in Ferraris’s series of mystery novels set in Saudi Arabia, but it reads well as a stand-alone. Its drawcard is seeing the myriad ways in which the extreme social restrictions of Saudi society affect crime and police investigations.
It’s a place where modern conveniences are juxtaposed with archaic practices. Forensic science and torture are both used in criminal investigations.
Murder and adultery are punished by public beheading, although when a woman is executed, her modesty must be preserved: “you don’t cut off her head. You shoot her in the back of the head.[...] If they chopped off the head, it might roll and the burqa might come off, and you would see her face.”
This is one of countless religious restrictions, most of which keep women hidden from men. There are few legitimate ways for a man to meet a woman in public, which is why all the killer’s victims were immigrants.
Their lives differ from a normal Saudi woman’s, and Saudi Arabia is full of them, making it a “kingdom of strangers”. The authorities cannot keep track of all the immigrants, many of whom live lives of indentured servitude and physical or sexual abuse. Runaways and disappearances are common, and few care about the missing women.
Not that being a Saudi woman is easy - you’re forced to be dependent on men. Women are not allowed to drive, so even as a police officer Katya, can’t go out without a male chaperone. She can’t interview men without a chaperone, because they find it improper to talk to a woman.
Her job involves minor interactions with male employees, and she’s worried that her fiancé will force her to quit because of this.
Unsanctioned interactions with men put her job at risk. When Zahrani first talks to Katya about Sabria’s disappearance, he ushers her into the women’s bathroom and locks the door. Throughout their conversation, Katya is distracted – if she’s caught alone in the bathroom with this man, she could be fired on the spot.
When alone in a car with Zahrani she wonders what would happen if her fiancé or her father heard about this. She’s 29 years old, but sometimes she’s as disempowered as a young child.
This is far more than a problem for women though – social restrictions affect police work too. When Zahrani asks why only one woman is working on the nineteen bodies found in the desert, the chief medical examiner replies “We do not touch women”.
Virtue is more important than catching the killer quickly. Showing people photos of female victims is often pointless, because most cover their faces in public.
Some people even have problems with photographing victims at crime scenes – it’s considered immoral to expose certain parts of the body (for women this includes everything except the hands and feet), and in strict versions of Islam it’s forbidden to take photos at all.
Even when Katya proves helpful in the serial-killer investigation, most men in the department disapprove of her involvement.
They find it inappropriate for her enter the men’s section of the building and will not discuss the case with her. And yet female employees are essential as they can interview other women, go to women-only malls, and examine female corpses.
It’s almost surreal, and oddly perverse. Thanks to all the virtue policies, people see sex everywhere – in a woman’s hair or eye contact. Much of this seems beyond belief, and yet Zoë Ferraris tells her story in a calm, matter-of-fact style that makes it realistic but still very readable.
It’s not as frustrating as news about the treatment of women in the Middle East usually is. Saudi is critiqued, but it doesn’t read like raucous polemic; rather it seems a frank but fair portrayal of a society that few people could speak of in any positive way.
On the whole Kingdom of Strangers is less a mystery novel than a portrait of Saudi society with two mysteries as the base on which the story is built. I’d still recommend it to crime fiction readers though, because it gives such an interesting perspective on police investigation, it’s well written, has strong characters and an entertaining plot.
I really appreciated it for its view on such a closed society too. Ferraris spent some time living in Saudi with her then-husband and his family, and although I imagine it must have been a very difficult experience at times, she’s certainly gained something valuable to offer readers.
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