City Of Veils

by Ellen Wernecke

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday August 9, 2010

Zoe Ferraris approaches the subject of women in the Middle East from a unique perspective, that of both insider and outsider: During her marriage to a Bedouin, she lived in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s -- a period which looks increasingly turbulent in retrospect, where the pot that would boil over in the early '00s was being stirred -- as the token American (Oklahoman, actually) of the family. (She wrote on Beliefnet.com that the biggest difference between the two cultures was the way her native Christianity was confined to one hour a week on Sundays, whereas the practice of Islam surrounded her everywhere.) Witness to its most intimate rituals without being 'of' the culture, she put her expertise to work in the service of mysteries Finding Nouf and now City of Veils, both set in Saudi Arabia.

A major thread of conflict in both Ferraris' mysteries, that would never take place in a book set elsewhere, is raised when unrelated men and women are forced to work together to solve crimes that won't be resolved any other way. When nasty crimes cross local mores, what will emerge triumphant? The answer often says more about the person providing it than the crime under review.

Without that animating tension, City of Veils is just another police procedural about the grisly death of a young woman and the terrible things its investigation unearths. In this case, the young woman had entered into an alliance with a visiting Westerner ultimately at her own peril; Nayir, a guide, and scientist Katya duly dig through the evidence, but their partnership is so far ahead of the crime that at times it hardly seems to matter what exactly happened to the victim, only that her freedom was at stake. Dreamy sequences in which Ferraris enters the visitors' heads are stronger than the building blocks of the case at hand, but City of Veils is still fascinating despite this perceived weakness.

Ellen Wernecke's work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and The Onion A.V. Club, and she comments on books regularly for WEBR's "Talk of the Town with Parker Sunshine." A Wisconsin native, she now lives in New York City.