Having lived the ex-pat life in a Muslim country or two (although only in the poorer, more politically chaotic ones), I was immediately drawn to the premise for Christopher Fowler’s The Sand Men. Fowler’s novel happens to be set in Dubai, one of the richest of the Arab countries - but what even the richest Muslim nations have in common with the poorest ones is a huge divide between the rich and the poor. It is almost as if the two groups live on different planets, and ex-pats thrown into the mix do not always handle themselves properly when exposed to such a glaring contrast.
Lea and Roy Brook are in the financial struggle of their lives in London when Roy receives a job offer from a company building several luxury hotels in Dubai. Roy is out of work and the young family is simply hanging on for dear life, so Roy’s acceptance of the job offer is really a no-brainer. But after she has moved into the huge company-housing compound with Roy and their fifteen-year-old daughter, Lea begins to wonder about their decision.
The ex-pat compound has developed a subculture of its own, one that is only remotely similar to anything that Lea has previously experienced. The ex-pat wives, although they are not forced to give up any of their rights, are almost eager to spend their days in mindless cooking classes, ladies groups, and puttering around the house while their husbands do the important work. These women may not be quite of the Stepford Wife variety, but they are most definitely the next best thing. Lea, a magazine writer in her old life, is not content to live that way for the two-year term of her husband’s work contract, and almost immediately, her attitude brings her to the attention of a handful of likeminded spirits – and a few sinister people who want to keep her from stirring up trouble.
The Sand Men is one of those thrillers in which the good guys find it almost impossible to tell the difference between ally and enemy – and as players come and go, Fowler makes certain that his readers face the same dilemma. When a long series of very strange accidents begins to claim the lives of those Lea feels closest to, she senses that time is running out for her. She either has to figure out what is happening and stop it, or she has to run for her life. But whom can she trust?
As Joseph Heller put it in Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
The Sand Men provides quite a thriller ride for those able to reach the proper level of suspended disbelief. If you’re willing to go there, this one might be for you.