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Book Review

Dan Fesperman: Layover in Dubai

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Layover in Dubai

By Dan Fesperman

Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover

Sam Keller isn’t used to hanging out with high-priced call girls. And he’s especially not used to milling about surrounded by women from so many different ethnicities—Ethiopian, Indian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, Iraqi, all stripes of former Soviet countries—in a posh urban club in the United Arab Emirates. A 28-year-old University of Chicago MBA, Sam is an almost painfully by-the-book auditor for an American pharmaceutical giant. Drinking a $9 scotch at a Persian Gulf brothel called the York Club isn’t his usual night out. But when his company’s corporate security VP Nanette Weaver asks him to spy on co-worker Charlie Hatcher, who is known to have a taste for women and booze, during a business trip to Hong Kong, Sam feels like he’s professionally bound to obey. It’s not technically spying, per se—“chaperone” is the agreed-upon word. OK, so it doesn’t hurt that Sam might have a bit of a thing for the power-suit-attractive Nanette. So when Charlie heads to the brothel during their titular layover, Sam follows, just hoping to keep him out of trouble until they can continue on their way.

When Charlie ends up killed in one of the club’s back rooms, though, Sam really finds himself out of his ken. All of which happens in Layover’s opening chapter, a fine example of former Baltimore Sun reporter and local novelist Dan Fesperman’s continued dexterity with genre storytelling. Since debuting with 1999’s Lie in the Dark, Fesperman has become particularly adept at using his reporter’s experience—in the former Yugoslavia during its 1990s ethnic conflicts, in the Middle East during the Gulf War, in Afghanistan and Pakistan following Sept. 11—as background shaping his highly readable thrillers.

While his first books involved actual investigators—Dark’s and The Small Boat of Great Sorrows’ homicide detective Vlado Petric, The Prisoner of Guantanamo’s FBI interrogator Revere Falk—more recently Fesperman has turned to following intelligent professionals forced into being sleuths. His 2008’s The Amateur Spy turned a humanitarian worker into an intelligence operative, while 2009’s superb The Arms Maker of Berlin pushed a history professor into a perhaps rekindled Cold War game. In each instance, the main character’s professional experience becomes an adaptive skill set needed to get him out of the mess he’s in, and as Alfred Hitchcock potently proved with North by Northwest’s Roger Thornhill, there’s something engagingly gripping about an otherwise ordinary middle-class man having to navigate a hidden-in-plain-sight underworld.

In Layover, Fesperman further complicates Sam’s situation by not only making him the only known associate to a murder victim, but stranding him in a totally alien city and culture. Soon, he’s dealing with diplomatic authorities and local policeman Anwar Sharaf. Soon, Nanette is flying over to quell a potential public relations nightmare. And soon, Sam ends up completely lost once he realizes that he’s in much, much deeper shit than he initially assumed. What follows is a twisty tour off the beaten path of Dubai’s tourist brochures, where bodies get dumped in the desert, where itinerant workers spend their days building sleek new skyscrapers and condos and their nights sleeping sardined into small rooms, and where Russian mobsters and Western businessmen make deals in flabbergastingly upscale malls.

All of the above is standard thriller fare, but Layover’s winding course through a mundane Dubai, among the people just as common as Sam would be back in the States, gives the novel a more satisfying dimension. Fesperman explores this everyday world through the amusing Sharaf, a fiftysomething cop who used to dive for pearls when he was young. Now Sharaf enjoys reading Russian novels and tries not to upset his wife or his independent daughter Lelah, a woman who runs her own marketing firm and prefers to dress in professional Western attire but who, like a more traditional Emirati woman, lives at home because she is unmarried and wears an abaya in public. Sharaf’s day-to-day is often complicated enough—and that’s before Sam and his dead American co-worker get plopped in his lap. Fesperman brings these two unlikely partners together with a succinct energy, and then briskly moves them through Dubai’s shadow economy as they chase the possible motives behind Charlie’s murder and, ideally, keep Sam from meeting the same fate. An entertainingly intelligent page turner.

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