Glitz, Glamour, Murder During A 'Layover In Dubai'

Layover in Dubai

Layover in Dubai is a frantic tale of cold murder, cunning double-crosses and narrow escapes. Yet by setting his story in the mind-numbingly hot and soul-crushingly glitzy city of Dubai, Dan Fesperman allows his novel to raise troubling questions about our globalized era, when reckless speculation fuels and ruins economies, everything and everyone is a commodity, and corporations and organized crime brush shoulders. All the while, as if gobbling fistfuls of buttered popcorn, we plow our way through sharp scenes of brilliant resourcefulness in the face of a towering conspiracy.

Layover in Dubai
By Dan Fesperman
Hardcover, 304 pages
Knopf
List price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt

Fesperman, a critically acclaimed crime writer, has once again given us — to use Graham Greene's term for his own books of straight-up intrigue and violent doings — a solid "entertainment." Young, straight-arrow Sam Keller, an auditor for a Big Pharma corporation, has been asked by his company's sultry security chief to baby-sit a colleague whose libertine ways are causing concern. Keller is to meet his fellow American in Dubai, then head off together to Hong Kong. But on a late-night visit to a packed club-cum-brothel (just one of the many seedier, hopeless places the reader is escorted through), the colleague gets blasted, the police interrogate Keller, and in quick order, Keller's world starts to fall apart — and deteriorates faster and faster.

Matters aren't any better for the novel's other leading man, Anwar Sharaf, a police investigator in his 50s who looks anything but competent, what with "his potbelly, a sloppy mustache and the hangdog jowls of the long-suffering family man." A privileged citizen of the United Arab Emirates, he also happens to be an honest cop who has taken on a secret, risky investigation on behalf of a government minister.

Dan Fesperman i i

hide captionBefore he became a fiction writer, Dan Fesperman traveled all over the world as a foreign correspondent. He was inspired to write his first novel, Lie in the Dark, after visiting Sarajevo in 1994.

Amy Deputy
Dan Fesperman

Before he became a fiction writer, Dan Fesperman traveled all over the world as a foreign correspondent. He was inspired to write his first novel, Lie in the Dark, after visiting Sarajevo in 1994.

Amy Deputy

Sharaf's dangerous mission entangles him in Keller's travails, and the gruff Muslim and put-upon father becomes Keller's best hope for surviving. Underestimated by mostly everybody (including themselves), the pair must increasingly depend on each other within the handful of days they have to chase down the truth. Meanwhile, powerful people who want to hide the murder's motive chase the duo, taking us through sumptuous homes, ramshackle labor camps, high-rise construction sites, chaotic prisons, and ridiculously appointed shopping malls.

Here's where Layover in Dubai especially shines. In telling his thriller, Fesperman reveals complex levels of Dubai society and government, particularly attitudes toward women that range from patriarchal to criminal. Through warm, likable Sharaf, we also get a sense of the anxiety ushered in with globalization, even in Dubai, which dredges the sea to further make itself a playground for the wealthy. Offering glass-enclosed ski slopes and glossy marketing careers in lieu of a rich if rigid desert culture seems like a hollow trade-off. As the story comes to a satisfying, even tidy end, it's that long glimpse of lucre replacing civilizations that remains.

Excerpt: 'Layover In Dubai'

Layover In Dubai
Layover In Dubai
By Dan Fesperman
Hardcover, 304 pages
Knopf
List price: $25.95

When he was a boy, diving for pearls among sharks, and gambling with smugglers three times his age, Anwar Sharaf was rarely underestimated by his peers. Nowadays, in his fifties, people did it all the time. Especially Westerners, who needed only one look before writing him off as either incompetent or inconsequential.

Sharaf's police uniform was part of the problem — green with epaulets and red piping, a canvas military belt, laced boots, a silly beret — a getup that would have been right at home in some banana republic far across the waves. He accentuated the effect with a potbelly, a sloppy mustache, and the hangdog jowls of the long-suffering family man.

Glimpse him hunched over paperwork at his undersized desk and the word "beleaguered" came instantly to mind. So did "inept" and, possibly, "corrupt." Because surely here was an underpaid fellow who would soon have his hand out, sighing and grumbling about this rule and that until you bribed him and were merrily on your way. A harmless nuisance, in other words. A scrap of local color to liven up your texts and postcards home: Dumbest cop ever, LOL!

The moment Sharaf opened his mouth, impressions began to change. Fluent in English and Russian (his father, hiring tutors at the height of the Cold War, had hedged his bets), Sharaf had also picked up Hindi from the streets and Persian from the wharves. That left him in command of four of Dubai's main languages of commerce, with his native Arabic murmuring beneath them like an underground stream. His tutors had also schooled him in literature, economics, biology, philosophy — the works. Throw in his seasons of instruction on the high seas at the age of thirteen — a summer of pearling, an autumn of smuggling — and he was arguably better equipped for intellectual combat than many of his contemporaries who had gone abroad to university.

Yet Sharaf usually held his fire. For one thing, why blow his cover? Enemies were more easily disarmed when they underestimated you. For another, he was accustomed to dismissive treatment, having endured it since the age of twenty-two, when he enraged his father by refusing to take a second wife even though his first one hadn't yet produced a child in two years of marriage. Thus did he break with a family tradition of Sharaf males taking multiple wives. Sharaf's father refused to acknowledge the move for what it was — a gesture of rebellion by a young man determined to be "modern." He instead scorned it as a craven surrender to foreign values and a domineering wife, and the berating continued without letup until his death six years later.

At that point, Sharaf's wife, Amina, took up the cudgel, even though by then she was producing offspring as bountifully as Dubai's new offshore wells were spouting oil. It wasn't out of malice. It was part of her job as an Emirati wife, which in those days included running a household with the tyrannical rigor of a ship's captain.

Little surprise, then, that as we join Sharaf late one weeknight he is stoically fending off the latest blow, grimacing as Amina says, "You really can be a heartless imbecile, you know, when it comes to the welfare of your sons."

Amina had chosen a vulnerable moment for her new offensive. It was right before bedtime, when she knew that what Sharaf cherished most was a cool glass of camel's milk before climbing into bed with a book.

He was a man of uncomplicated tastes. Whereas Dubai's new elite favored art auctions, horse breeding, and an eclectic cuisine of, say, creamed leeks with shaved truffles, followed by poached Dover sole (which happened to be exactly what Sharaf's top boss, Brigadier Razzaq, had ordered that very night on the tab of a British banker), Sharaf preferred shopping malls, domino parlors, greasy mutton kebabs, and, his most recent discovery, sushi bars, which he treasured for their elemental taste of the sea.

In his reading he was far more adventuresome, a seeker of exotic riches from every hemisphere. He was particularly relishing tonight's offering — Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, in the original Russian. A copy had arrived in the afternoon mail and awaited him on the bedside table. Sharaf was hungry for its insights, especially since certain Russians had lately been much on his mind. But now he would have to fight his way to sanctuary.

He set down his glass of milk with deliberation. He knew better than to answer hastily to such a skilled opponent. Early in their marriage Sharaf had enjoyed a clear advantage in these verbal contests, mostly because Amina's all-girl school had valued piety and deportment over rhetoric and quick thinking. But she had a sharp mind, and in raising their five children she had honed it on the whetstone of their daily stratagems and evasions. Sharaf, meanwhile, had steadily dulled his by going up against oafish criminals and sleepy desk sergeants, to the point that on the home front he was now sometimes overmatched.

Excerpted from Layover In Dubai by Dan Fesperman. Copyright 2010 by Dan Fesperman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf.

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