Romantic images of Lawrence of Arabia and sunbaked, hospitable Bedouins well up from Western books and movies about the desert. That evocative landscape plays a seminal role in Zo∧#235; Ferraris' first novel as well, but in her masterful hands Saudi Arabia's mysteries are free of overheated symbolism.

In Finding Nouf, we look into the minds of trackers who can tell a story from footprints in the sand, their etchings unique as fingerprints. We share the frustrations of Miss Katya Hijazi, a highly trained crime-scene investigator, who must dodge the religious police and her father's worries whenever she leaves the house. But most of all we feel the pain and puzzlement, the idealism and yearnings of Nayir, a Palestinian who has grown up in Saudi Arabia and is put in charge of investigating a 16-year-old girl's death, and finding her killer.

Young Nouf drowned in an onrush of water in a desert valley not long before her wedding. But did she run away, as her wealthy family chooses to believe? Or was she kidnapped and murdered? Nayir devotes himself to uncovering the facts even as the grieving family gives mixed signals about whether they want the truth.

Ferraris crafts her main character so skillfully that the reader roots for Nayir despite his judgmental attitudes toward women who show too much skin, even an ankle or a forthright gaze. Miss Hijazi's forwardness grates on him, her behavior as unsettling as the hushed-up evidence of Nouf's bloody injuries. Nayir and Miss Hijazi become unlikely partners as they attempt to find justice for a girl who in death gained the ultimate release from an oppressive society.

The story proceeds at a flawless pace, with landscape and characters deftly drawn. The reader enters places few Americans ever see, including the inner sanctum of a Saudi family, which Ferraris knows first-hand: she lived in Jeddah with her then-husband and his Saudi-Palestinian family following the Gulf War. Her remarkable debut is a tale of manners, romance and intrigue with a literary feel that will make readers hope she follows her first novel with a second.

Andrea Brunais writes from Tampa, Florida, and Bluefield, West Virginia.

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