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Glitz, Glamour, Murder During A '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.

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.

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Oscar Villalon
Oscar Villalon is book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. A member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, he's also a long-time juror of the California Book Awards, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. His writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer, and his reviews have aired on KQED's The California Report. He lives with his wife and son in San Francisco.
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