Mysteries provide interesting look into other cultures

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 31, 2008

By Karen Young
For the Salisbury Post
Two recent mysteries offer more than the formulaic who-done-it: “Sweetsmoke,” by David Fuller, and “Finding Nouf,” by Zoe Ferraris.
Both were engrossing and entertaining and both were skillfully written debut novels that give the reader a plausible understanding of another time, another place, another culture.
Fuller spent eight years researching “Sweetsmoke,” which may be why the book seems to ring so true. The title refers to the name of a tobacco plantation and the book is set during the Civil War. The protagonist, Cassius, is an angry, bitter slave who is also a favorite of the planter, owner of Sweetsmoke, Hoke Howard.
Hoke has had Cassius trained as a carpenter, which gives Cassius a degree of independence from the overseer, but which sets him somewhat apart from the other slaves as well as generating mistrust from whites. Hoke is neither overly kind nor cruel taking care of his “people” but does not hesitate to sell them or beat them for any out-of-line behavior.
When a local freed slave is murdered, her death brings out past issues as well as the personalities of both slaves and whites. The Civil War rages, but Cassius finds purpose in his enslaved life by learning who killed Emoline, the woman who saved him from death and secretly taught him to read.
For the reader, this is where the novel is fun to read. How does a slave travel about? How do enslaved people relate to each other, protecting each other with signals or getting each other into trouble when angry?
The author is excellent at weaving in the tone of fear the planters have of slaves, hiring patrolling “catchers” and mutilating runaways. He brings out how limited life is when a slave cannot read and lives on a plantation ignorant of places and people even a few miles away.
“Finding Nouf” gives the reader insight into another entirely different slave culture, the rigid society of hot, rich and boring kingdom of Saudi Arabia where a teenage girl goes missing from her wealthy family.
Our hero, Nayir, is a desert guide and a friend of one of the many brothers in the family. He is asked to search for the missing girl and becomes involved in her disappearance. This pious bachelor joins forces with Katya Hijazi in uncovering secrets. Katya is an educated biochemist employed in a forensic lab, a rare career for a Saudi woman in a society where men and women are rigidly segregated from each other.
The difficulties of this separation form much of the structure of this plot. How do a single man and a single woman exchange information? How do rich women tolerate a life with nothing to do but shop? How do they get to the stores to shop? What do they do with the high fashion jackets given as gifts upon betrothal when the outside heat is deadly?
These two books are why I don’t buy a Kindle and read downloads. It is by browsing the new books at Rowan Public Library that I stumble on fun reads, books that won’t make the New York Times review, but which entertain and are well worth my time.
Karen Young of Salisbury enjoys her reading time.