Nouf is already found in the opening pages of "Finding Nouf." She's a 16-year-old girl, born into privilege in Saudi Arabia, and as Zoë Ferraris' debut novel opens, everybody is baffled that she could have drowned in the desert outside Jeddah -- and might have been pregnant as well. Nayir, the desert guide and family friend who's investigating the incident, suspects that her death wasn't an accident but a crime of passion. That's going to be difficult to prove, though, thanks to the country's emotionally repressive ethos. "Women, so used to secrecy, undoubtedly took their secrets to their graves," Nayir muses.
"Finding Nouf" is in many ways as strict and conventional as the culture it documents. Its murder-mystery template is ages old: There's a male detective, Nayir, who's unattached and something of an outcast (he's a working-class Palestinian in a culture of wealthy Saudis). He has the assistance of an attractive-but-distant woman (Katya, a lab tech at the medical examiner's office); and the plot twists echo the deceptions and double-crosses of a Chandler-style noir. Indeed, Ferraris seems to joke a bit about the familiarity of her plot; during a shopping trip, Nayir winds up in a coat that everyone agrees makes him look just like Peter Falk's rumpled TV detective in "Columbo."
But though the structure of "Finding Nouf" flirts with the clichés of a murder mystery, the novel fills a niche: Glimpses of life inside Saudi Arabia are rare, and the novel is an intriguing portrait of a patriarchy that bars women from driving and only recently allowed them to rent apartments on their own. To that end, Ferraris, an American who lived in the country after the first Gulf War, made a wise move in writing a mystery -- Nayir and Katya's investigations offer an efficient way to peer into various corners of Saudi life. Nayir is subjected to the subtle contempt of wealthy Saudis, who use him to play-act their old roles as desert masters, but his investigations expose a corroded moral system that left Nouf desperate to escape to the United States. Katya's character makes this division more concrete -- she has a Ph.D. in molecular biology but she's forced to perform mundane tasks at the lab, and to use a separate women's door to enter it.
Ferraris' tone in response to these injustices isn't outrage so much as a black, mocking humor. One day Nayir watches a man picnicking with his four wives -- polygamy is permitted under some interpretations of Islamic law, as long as the man treats each wife the same. "The women never approached [their husband] except to bring food," she writes. "At least, Nayir thought, the husband was ignoring them all. Equally." When Nayir is stunned by a woman who dares to flash him at a mall, he's laughingly comforted by Nouf's adoptive brother (and, somewhat too conveniently, Katya's fiancé); after all, such moments of acting-out are to be expected in so oppressive a place.
It's somewhat unfortunate that those observations, however secondary to the plot, tend to taper off in the final chapters of "Finding Nouf," as Ferraris gets down to the necessary business of addressing DNA tests, alibis and motives to reveal the truth of Nouf's fate. Ferraris handles those elements of the story expertly as well, which raises the question of what she might do for a second act: Having written a successful hybrid of thriller and literary portrait, ought she stick to mysteries, or pull more veils away from the Saudi culture she seems to know so well?
Mark Athitakis is the arts editor at Washington City Paper. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.