Imagine trying to solve a crime when you are not allowed to drive, can’t travel without a male relative for an escort, and are treated with undisguised contempt by other members of the police force (most of whom want you fired simply because you’re a woman). Those are the problems faced by Katya, one of the only females on the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, police force. Fortunately, her superior—Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani— recognizes Katya’s courage and intelligence, but Ibrahim must strictly guard his own behavior for the safety of them both.
While working together to catch a serial killer who has dismembered 19 immigrant women, he and Katya stand in danger of being accused of “crimes of virtue”—and the Shariah court’s punishments are harsh. Harsh enough that when the married Ibrahim discovers that his secret mistress Sabria is missing and may be one of the serial killer’s victims, he can’t report it because he would then be beheaded for adultery. The only person he can trust to help find her is Katya, but since she’s female, her attempts at investigating Sabria’s disappearance are stifled at every turn.
The atmosphere of the story is often oppressive, but at the same time, that very oppression makes for eye-popping suspense. Will Katya be arrested by the “virtue police” for being seen with an unrelated male? Will Ibrahim’s secret life be revealed? These aren’t idle questions, because every element in this novel ties neatly together.
The title is particularly apt: According to Ferraris (author of Finding Nouf and City of Veils), 90 percent of private sector employees in Saudi Arabia are foreign workers, making the country a true “kingdom of strangers.” A high percentage of these workers are Asian women imported to serve as maids and nannies. Forced to surrender their passports upon arrival in Saudi Arabia, the Asians’ legal rights are then stripped away by work contracts that could best be described as legal slavery. In Kingdom of Strangers, these powerless women are the easy victims for the serial killer roaming the streets of Jeddah.
The author has lived in Saudi, and her descriptions of the inequities for women in social situations and in the courts (where a man’s word is counted as twice the worth of a woman’s) ring with authenticity. Yet love and justice can happen even in the direst of circumstances, and they do in this stern kingdom. If there is a message in Ferraris’ moving book it is that no matter how dark the law, human nature will always struggle toward the light.