Next to romance, crime fiction is perhaps one of the highest selling categories in fiction. There are so many subgenres in crime and each have their own loyal following: classic detective or private eye tales, cozy mysteries, hard boiled stories, and police procedurals. The settings for these stories are as varied as the stories themselves: Asian, American, Latin American, Italian, and of course Scandinavian crime writers have kept readers enthralled for decades. A region notable in its absence on this list is the Middle East – at least to readers in English.
A few translated works are available like Vertigo by the Egyptian novelist Ahmed Mourad. But the bulk of contemporary crime titles set in the Middle East are written expats who have lived there for several years. The Omar Yussef mysteries, for example, are set in Palestine and written by Matt Beynon Rees, former bureau Jerusalem chief for Time. There are almost none in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of the Arabian Gulf. You will not find the emirates of Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), or Oman as the backdrop for a quest for justice. The rare exceptions to a lack of presence in the crime genre in GCC are three books in Saudi Arabia by Zoe Ferraris.
The reasons for the small numbers of writers in the Middle East exploring crime fiction are embedded in covert and overt prohibitions in the region’s socio-political fabric. A crime novel relies on a protagonist who battles against evil, embodied in the particular crime at hand, often alone, and with the promise of justice. Such an emphasis on the individual may be at odds with the relational nature of life in these intimate societies where one’s actions can negatively affect family and friends.
Other deterrents are much more tangible: the censorship practices of most Middle East nations mean that every book sold within the country must pass a screening test. The consequences of having a banned book vary: from the frustration of not having a title on the shelf to imprisonment or exile, the consequences depend on the interpretation and sensibilities of the censor.
This is why the life and times of Ali, a Sandhurst trained military man who is demoted because of childhood deformity, are set in an unnamed Gulf country. His second challenge, the latest book in the Crimes in Arabia series, is solving the murder of a young teacher, found strangled in her bathtub. Readers familiar with the region may be able to place the story near Qatar or Dubai.
Ali has a support cast of characters to help him scrabble back into the good graces of his superior and to do so he has to take on unsavory cases that no one else would consider. He’s gruff, he’s Arab, he doesn’t know about dating apps like Tinder, or why his fiancée takes university so seriously. In the next book, which I’m currently researching, Ali will be faced with untangling a ISIS recruitment plot.
One hopes to see more series like these from this dynamic part of the world.
Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar * No Place For Women * 978-1535077989