Culture Watch Mystery Reviews: Female Sleuths, Violent Crimes and Exotic Cultures
Reviewed by Serena Nanda
By Zoe Ferraris, 2008
Published by Houghton Mifflin, 305 pp.
By Deon Meyer, 2008
Trans. From Afrikaans by K.L. Seeger
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press, 408 pp.
Mark of the Lion
Suzanne Arruda, 2006
New American Library, 340 pp.
The mysteries take place in the diverse and complex societies of Jedda, Saudi Arabia; Capetown, South Africa; and the Happy Valley in Kenya. Race, class, ethnicity, tribal and gender identities all play important roles in both the crimes and the investigations. The deep cultural contexts of the crimes are not dull academic explanations but subtle, authentic and fascinating descriptions. Central to each of these novels are women investigators, some official and some not, whose individual personalities and interactions with the local 'police cultures' add an extra dimension of interest and suspense to the stories.
Finding Nouf is the first in a captivating series of mysteries that takes place in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. The central investigators are Katya Hijazi, a lab technician in the Jedda police department with ambitions to move into 'real' police work and Nayir ash-Sharqi, a young man of Palestinian Bedouin descent who works as a guide on desert adventures, a favorite pastime of the newly rich Bedouins in Jedda. You may think you are familiar with the gender segregated and misogynist society of Saudi Arabia, but this electrifying series will make you think again.
When Nouf, a l6- year-old girl goes missing, her brother who is a friend of Nayir, hires him to search for her in the Saudi desert, an area little known even to many Saudis. Nouf is soon found dead in the desert with her body facing Mecca (a burial position only for pregnant women), and there are nearby clues that may turn out to have religious significance. How did she come to die in this remote desert area: was she running away from a marriage which had been arranged for her and accidentally die from heat and dehydration? Was she murdered by a stranger, maybe even a foreigner? or by someone intimately known to her?
In addition to the suspenseful mystery which will keep the reader engaged until the final page, the emerging relationship between Katya and Nayir is entrancing. Nayir's religious commitment makes him ambivalent about working with Katya, a young, unmarried woman who shows her face in public. Reluctantly he finds he needs her help if he wants to solve the murder. It is to author Ferraris's great credit that in spite of Nayir's religious leanings he is not a caricature but rather an appealing individual with whom we identify, as we do with Katya.
The details about the men and women in Nouf's family, Saudi society, American connections in Saudi Arabia, Bedouin tracking expertise, religious diversity in Islam and other cultural story elements are written in a way that clearly connects them to the murder, keeping the reader intrigued. There are a few complicated and perhaps implausible details about the process of the murder itself but just make a note and continue reading.
Thirteen Hours is also a gripping murder mystery, this one set in Capetown, South Africa. It opens with a young, white girl fleeing for her life in the hills surrounding the city. Soon the body of another young, white girl is found in the area; on the basis of her clothes and her backpack, it is assumed she is a foreigner. The murder causes great tension in the Capetown police command post because of the importance of foreign tourism to the South African economy and because of the implied global politics; it turns out the girls are American.
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