Kingdom of Strangers Review
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These days, when you pick up a crime novel, you generally know what to expect. You know the kinds of characters involved, and you know how they work. But rarely do you find a mystery as complex or as layered as Kingdom of Strangers by author Zoë Ferraris.

After all, the main character faces a number of challenges that are completely unheard of in most whodunits. Forensic pathologist Katya Hijazi is struggling to build a career in Saudi Arabia, where strict religious rules keep her segregated from colleagues while her movements are carefully regulated. Fortunately, though, she’s able to find a few men on the police force who are willing to work with her, despite the fact that she’s a woman.

When the bodies of 19 women are discovered in the desert, their hands missing, Katya is asked to join the investigation—since no man is allowed contact with the body of a woman. As she helps Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani track down a serial killer, he confides in her about another, more confidential, case: his mistress, Sabria, has gone missing. Unable to speak to other women or visit women-only shopping malls and other locations, he needs the help of a woman he can trust—because if the police department finds out, he could be executed for adultery.

Like Ferraris’s earlier novels (including 2010’s City of Veils), Kingdom of Strangers is as culturally rich as it is captivating. And while the investigations may be intriguing—often even more so than the average mystery—what really stands out is the culture.

Each of the two mysteries is steeped in cultural details. The missing persons case deals with laws regarding decency, along with issues related to the treatment of foreign workers. The serial killer case, meanwhile, explores subjects ranging from religion to classic literature, with details that become more and more fascinating as the clues are uncovered.

Readers with limited knowledge of Muslim culture will be enthralled by the day-to-day lives of the characters—from Ibrahim’s fears of being discovered as an adulterer to Katya’s struggle to be involved in the investigation, despite constant pressure for her to submit to rules and regulations and expectations.

Katya is a remarkable character. Smart and determined, she does whatever it takes to find answers—even when it means going above and beyond the requirements of her job. When the men in the department brush her off, she heads out to investigate on her own, though it means convincing her cousin or her fiancé, Nayir, to drive her to crime scenes. At the same time, though, despite her dedication to her job—and her determination to continue in a field that most would consider indecent—she has a softer side, too. Throughout the story, she also attempts to plan her wedding to Nayir, hoping that he’ll be understanding of the pressures of her career instead of demanding that she fit into the role of a traditional Muslim wife. Along the way, readers even get a glimpse of their unconventional relationship, as Nayir gradually comes to grips with Katya’s work, occasionally even helping her instead of discouraging her ambition.

Really, the book’s only weakness is its conclusion. After devoting so much time and energy to tracking the serial killer, the end feels too abrupt. He’s found and captured—and his sentence carried out—in just a matter of a few pages, though it would have been much more interesting if Ferraris had explored the killer’s methods and motivations in a little more depth.

More than just another whodunit, though, Kingdom of Strangers is an absorbing cultural experience—an exploration of a way of life that’s unimaginable for most Western readers. The complex and intricately-detailed mysteries, meanwhile, are icing on the cake, making it a riveting must-read for anyone who’s looking for a deeper, more thought-provoking mystery.

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