Crime and conundrum

After realising how little westerners knew about Saudi Arabia, author Zoe Ferraris decided to weave a tale and dispel some myths

Zoe Ferraris hopes to write more about her Kingdom of Strangers protagonist Katya. Courtesy Zoe Ferraris
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When 19 bodies are found buried in the desert, the female Saudi CSI Katya has to deal with more than just finding the killer in Kingdom of Strangers, the latest crime novel by Zoe Ferraris. We talked to the three-time author about Saudi Arabia and her lead character Katya's challenges as a working, unmarried woman.

Having lived in Saudi Arabia, did you always plan to write a crime novel set there?

I lived there for just under one year … just after the first Gulf war in 1991/1992. I actually didn't start writing them [the novels] for about 10 years after I'd left Saudi.

My daughter's Arab and I was married to a man from Jeddah and I talked to so many Americans and realised over and over again that I knew a lot of information about this part of the world that most of those people in America didn't know. And that is just such a huge gap of knowledge - I wanted to dispel that, so I started writing a book.

My ex-husband took me to an outdoor coat market one day, he said he wanted to buy a Columbo coat (he loves the TV show Columbo). He was browsing through this huge outdoor market full of outerwear and he bought this beige trench coat and I remember thinking, I've never read about a Muslim detective, someone should really do that. It was sort of a seed but that didn't grow for another decade.

Where did the character of Katya come from?

I never actually met a woman who is a forensic professional, but rather women who had professional jobs and who were struggling with certain issues. But I think her attitude towards work and her attitude towards herself and her place in society is very similar to women I've known and been inspired by in Jeddah.

What were the professional Saudi women you spoke to like?

Most of them are married to men who really support that they want to work. In my second book [City of Veils] there's a character named Osama who's like this. He expects his wife to work, he likes that his wife works, he's proud of her, he's in a certain segment of society where it's accepted and it's more liberal.

Are there many female police officers in Saudi Arabia?

There are women that work in the police force. There are female medical examiners or coroners; women that handle female bodies. The specific job that Katya has is something that I fictionalised, so there's not a whole lot of information behind the female coroners and cops who go out and talk to people.

What's next for Katya?

I think I'm going to take a break from writing about Saudi Arabia right now. I do want to write a little more about Katya, because I love her character and I think with her getting married things will change and stuff will happen to her. I love Nayir [a lead character in City of Veils] and I want to continue writing about him as well. I'm working on another project right now, about California and American history.

Are your books available in Arabic?

I would love to see an Arabic version, but I couldn't possibly do it myself - there would need to be a translator. And I know my sisters-in-law would love to read them, but they don't speak English well enough to read it in English.

• For a review of Zoe Ferraris' new book, check out