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Inherent Vice
Thomas Pynchon, Ron McLarty
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City of Veils

City of Veils - Zoƫ Ferraris, Kate Reading A detective mystery set in Saudi Arabia. Your first thought might be that there is going to be a lot of exposition about Islam and contrasting radical extremists with "good" Muslims, or disquisitions on the status of women in Islam and how much it sucks to be a Saudi woman. While these topics come up (and yes, it does kind of suck to be a Saudi woman), Zoe Ferraris never gets up on a soapbox and neither do her characters. I was skeptical at first, but the writing is plain, straightforward narrative that dips into the minds of a modest cast of characters male and female, American and Saudi, and builds a fairly decent mystery starting with a vanished American ex-pat and a Saudi "Jane Doe" found on a beach in Jeddah.

The Saudi setting is the sweetener in what would otherwise be a competent if unexceptional murder mystery. The victim turns out to have been a young Saudi woman filmmaker who was something of a muckraker, filming scenes from the seamy underbelly of Jeddah, which is sort of the Las Vegas of Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly, she pissed a lot of people off, so the police go from one suspect to another. The first police character is a Saudi detective, Osama Ibrahim, who is a fairly modern guy and not at all unpleasant or radical, though he does have a bit of trouble dealing with the poor American woman who is having a great deal of trouble dealing with Saudi Arabia. The other main Saudi character is Katya, a single woman working for the coroner's office. A more cliched story would try to make Osama and Katya star-crossed lovers. Instead, they strike up an awkward partnership/friendship, while trying to negotiate the difficult territory of male/female relationships in such a strict country.

It turns out that the American woman's disappeared husband and the murdered filmmaker are connected. The murderer was not a big surprise, but there were enough twists and secondary discoveries right up until the end to keep the story interesting.

A very enjoyable story that shows Saudi Arabia as a modern country, neither whitewashing its more unsavory aspects nor depicting it as a land of nothing but fundamentalist mullahs, Al Qaeda fanboys and oppressed women. If you like a decent mystery novel with an exotic (for Americans) locale and a nice mix of interesting male and female characters, this is well worth a read.