When a body is found in a remote part of the desert, evidence emerges that there’s a serial killer long on the loose near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The homicide team is stumped, digging for patterns and clues as over a decade’s worth of evidence emerges. Katya, a female forensic pathologist, is working hard to investigate the case despite being officially unable to do so (due to gender), while the lead inspector on the case, Ibrahim, is distracted by the disappearance of his (illegal) mistress.
This is the third book in this series by Ferraris, each of them standalone. I previously read City of Veils (book two) but have never read the first. I enjoy the series because there’s less emphasis on figuring out the killer’s identity (like in many mysteries) and more emphasis on Saudi Arabian culture and politics. “Politics” makes this sound boring, but it’s not. The characters are living their culture and politics. Katya cannot drive, and it’s risky to get into a car with a man who isn’t related to her. There are varying degrees of covering hair/body/face. It’s illegal to have a mistress, but not to have multiple wives, and if found out, you can be beheaded. A man’s word counts twice as much in court. Theft is regularly punished by chopping off a hand, and there are proper burial rituals for the hand afterwards. Religion infiltrates all parts of life, not just as in people believing in their faith, but minute debates over tiny details of Islam and how they apply to specific situations. Not to mention the fear of djinni and intangible evil, the intense nationalism (serial killers are all foreigners!), and the non-city cultures like the Bedouin.
The title of this particular book comes from a quote where Saudi Arabia is referred to as having more foreigners than natives, mostly made up of people from southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Africa. Some are refugees who outstay their Hajj visas. Some are lured into the country by human traffickers promising a better life. Many are a level of poor that most of us cannot even begin to imagine. When these people, a high majority of them female, are abused, raped, beaten, tortured, or in other ways violated, they have no one to turn to. They aren’t allowed to leave the country without their employer’s permission (the employer is often the one violating them), and as foreigners, they have no rights or protections at all. Much of this seedy underside of Saudi Arabia is explored in the background of this mystery, while the police force plays out its own politics and searches for a serial killer. And this is why I love this particular series. It’s more than just a series of mysteries. It’s immersive and all-encompassing.