City of Veils. Zoë Ferraris. Little, Brown. $24.99. 400 pp.
Unusual characters, unique settings and current events abound in the mystery genre. It should come as no surprise that the intricacies of Saudi Arabian society make for an exciting, probing mystery series featuring a devout, intelligent and independent woman.
Jeddah medical examiner's office, Katya Hijazi wants her work to be valuable and respected. It's especially important for her to help find justice for female victims living in a society where women are expected to live quiet, retiring lives in this "City of Veils," as demanded by Islamic law and tradition. Katya also wears a burqa and lives a modest lifestyle.
Katya and her friend, desert guide Nayir Sharqi, investigate the death of a young woman found on a beach near Jeddah. The young woman was a filmmaker known for controversial documentaries that made her enemies. The case leads them to Miriam Walker, an American woman whose husband, a security contractor, disappeared the night she arrived in Jeddah. As the link between two cases becomes apparent, Katya and Navir find a culture of prostitution, violence and pornography that the government desperately tries to keep quiet.
In her second novel, Ferraris skillfully takes the reader into the streets and homes of Saudi Arabia with an unflinching look at the melding of religious and contemporary views. It is a society that most Americans cannot understand, but Ferraris illustrates what it's like to live where the fashion police can arrest any man or woman for what they deem immodest dress; a woman flying into the country unescorted may be detained in a room marked "Unclaimed Women"; and a man can take "a summer marriage."
But Ferraris also balances "City of Veils." She uses the relationship between Katya and Nayir to show how those who are religious also can be progressive. Her independence and competence at work parallels his beliefs as an orthodox Muslim. The two love each other and are moving toward a deeper bond.
Ferraris won the 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction for her debut "Finding Nouf," which introduced her characters. In "City of Veils," Ferraris, who lived in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s with her former husband, continues to highlight all facets of the human factor in a complicated society.
Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.