Where the Caravan Camels Roam*

There’s a certain mystique about the Middle East for a lot of people. Politics aside, it’s home to a rich and very complicated history and some interesting cultures. It’s not surprising that people think of the Middle East as exotic. It’s also not surprising that several authors have set their crime novels there. There are a lot of examples of crime fiction that’s set in the Middle East; here are just a few. Oh, and you’ll notice I don’t really touch on spy thriller/espionage or military stories here; there are plenty of them, but this post will focus more on crime fiction.

Agatha Christie set several of her stories in the Middle East. She was, after all, the wife of an archaeologist. She also wrote during a time of intense interest in all things Middle Eastern, particularly Egyptian. One of those stories is Death on the Nile. In that novel, newlyweds Linnet and Simon Doyle travel to the Middle East for their honeymoon. Their trip includes a cruise of the Nile, and they’re looking forward to enjoying themselves. To Linnet’s dismay, one of the other passengers is her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. Jackie used to be engaged to Simon and blames Linnet for their brekaup. Things are very awkward and uncomfortable, but Simon and Linnet determine to see the trip through. Then, on the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. Jackie is the most obvious suspect, but it’s soon proved that she couldn’t have committed the crime. Hercule Poirot is also on the cruise, and he works with Colonel Race to find out who the murderer is.

Elizabeth Peters (one of Barbara Metz’ pen names) created a series of historical novels featuring wealthy heiress Amelia Peabody. In the first one, Crocodile on the Sandbank, Amelia has decided to take a trip to Egypt. At the time the novel takes place (the end of the 19th Century), ladies simply don’t travel alone, so Amelia has arranged for a companion to come with her. However, her companion becomes ill and has to return to England. At first, Amelia thinks she’ll have to abandon her plan. Then, by chance, she meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who has her own unfortunate history. Evelyn’s been abandoned by the man she loved, and by her family, who didn’t approve of him. It takes very little persuasion for Evelyn to agree to become Amelia’s travel companion, and the two set off. Soon enough, they get drawn into a mystery surrounding an archaeological dig near the village of Haggi Qandil, also called Tell-el-Amarna. First, a mummy disappears. Then, villagers report seeing a mummy walk at night; even the practical and level-headed Amelia sees it. Other frightening things happen, too, and people begin saying that the place is cursed. Whatever is going on, Amelia and Evelyn are going to have to find out who’s behind these incidents if they’re to stay alive.

Saudi Arabia is the setting for Zoë Ferraris’ series featuring Palestinian-born desert guide Nayir ash-Sharqui, and laboratory technician Katya Hijazi. In the first entry, Finding Nouf, Nayir’s friend Othman ash-Shrawi hires him to find out the truth about Othman’s sixteen-year-old sister, Nouf. It seems that she went missing and was later found dead in a wadi. The official explanation is that she drowned when a sudden storm came up. But Katya’s test results, plus some other evidence, suggest that this might have been a murder. It’s very difficult for Katya, as Othman is her fiancé. It’s also hard for Nayir, as Othman is his friend. But both of them persevere, and in the end, find out who killed Nouf and why.

Anthony Bidulka’s PI sleuth Russell Quant often travels for his work. In Date With a Sheesha, Pranav Gupta hires Quant to find out what happened to his son Nayal ‘Neil.’ He tells Quant that Neil had gone to the Middle East to give some lectures on antique carpets, and to choose some samples for the University of Saskatoon’s permanent display. During a stay in Dubai, Neil and some of his friends had an impromptu party at one of the outdoor markets. Then, according to the police reports, he was attacked and killed by a group of thugs. Gupta, though, thinks his son’s death was a hate crime and that he was targeted because he was gay. He wants Quant to find out the truth, so Quant heads for Dubai. The murder was said to be a random crime, but Quant finds out that there was nothing at all random about it.

There’s also D.A. (Dror) Mishani’s Tel Aviv-based detective Avraham ‘Avi’ Avraham.  In The Missing File, the first of this series, Avi investigates when sixteen-year-old Ofer Sherabi goes missing. At first, Avi is sure that Ofer will return soon. When he doesn’t, Avi starts looking into the matter. He soon finds that there are several possibilities in this case. For one thing, Ofer’s father wasn’t at home at the time his son disappeared. He could very well have something to do with the case. Another ‘person of interest’ is Ze’ev Avni, who lived in the same building, and who gave Ofer English lessons. But they didn’t have a typical tutor/student relationship, so Ze’ev could have more than one motive for getting rid of the boy. There are other leads, too, making this a challenging case.

There are lots of other crime novels, too, that take place in the Middle East. It’s a diverse, exotic, and complex setting, so it’s little wonder it can be so effective. Which Middle East-based novels have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Arabian Nights.