Wednesday 27 July 2011

The Night of the Mi'raj by Zoë Ferraris

In the Saudi Arabian desert, a body of a young girl is found, after a search of nearly two weeks. The rich and influential family have some words with the authorities, and the death is quickly declared an accident.

But of course, that is not the whole story in Night of the Mi'raj (later retitled 'Finding Nouf'). The tracker they've asked to help them find the girl is now secretly tasked with finding out what happened. He's a Palestinian, devout, a single man, and conservative / obsessed with modesty. Now he's looking into the circumstances around the tragic, possibly violent death of a teenage girl...

It's a compelling backdrop to a crime drama. Inspired by inspector Columbo (our hero, too, soon finds himself wearing a trenchcoat and questioning people who have things to hide), and working together with a woman working in a forensics laboratory, he slowly reveals layer upon layer of mystery.

This is not a thriller: there is not much of a sense of threat around the story developments. Instead, it is a murder mystery in the most classical sense. It took me a while to adjust to this - perhaps I am too used to cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, and heroes being chased, conspiracies, dark shadows around every corner. Once I adjusted to the more sedate pace, this was a compelling read. I'd bought it because I wanted to get a sense of Saudi Arabia, and I feel that I did get a glimpse - told in functional, but undecorated prose. It was not quite as atmospheric as I had hoped.

So, if you like TV murder mysteries like "Murder she wrote" or "Diagnosis: Murder", or Agatha Christie novels, and you want to combine that sort of plot with a bit of cultural sightseeing into countries you might never visit, and attitudes that you might find quite alien, then this is an excellent book for you. Personally, I would have preferred a bit more tension, a bit more of a sense of urgency, and perhaps more of a presence for the religious police, but I found the book pretty good.

Rating: 4/5

(Addendum: this book turned out to be the start of a series which improved massively with each subsequent book: the second one is very good, the third is superb.)

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