Night Falls on Damascus: A Novel

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A crime of passion brings on a harrowing criminal investigation in a divided land

Set in the exotic and turbulent world of Syria in the 1930s, Night Falls on Damascus tells the story of a French-Syrian police inspector, Nikolai Faroun, caught up in a complex murder investigation of a beautiful and controversial woman from a prominent Damascus family.

Vera Tamiri made enemies for her good works as well as her cosmopolitanism. On one hand was she...

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Night Falls on Damascus: A Novel

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Overview

A crime of passion brings on a harrowing criminal investigation in a divided land

Set in the exotic and turbulent world of Syria in the 1930s, Night Falls on Damascus tells the story of a French-Syrian police inspector, Nikolai Faroun, caught up in a complex murder investigation of a beautiful and controversial woman from a prominent Damascus family.

Vera Tamiri made enemies for her good works as well as her cosmopolitanism. On one hand was she was a social reformer who had tried to advance the health and welfare of Arab women in a volatile community hemmed in by custom and hostile to social change. However, Vera had a shadowy side: she cultivated a Bohemian pose, gambled recklessly, and was not always wise in her choice of companions—-and lovers.

Faroun suspects that she may have fallen victim to a gruesome crime of passion. However, he soon realizes that there is more to this crime than a jealous lover. In a country chafing under foreign rule and divided by sectarian strife, Vera Tamiri made a tempting political target. In a city seething with anger and revolt, Inspector Faroun begins unraveling a conspiracy from Syria's troubled past, a secret that Vera may have uncovered—-at the cost of her life.

As the elements of a sinister and elusive crime bubble to the surface, Faroun must be careful not to bring to light secrets of his own—-the real reason for his presence in Damascus and a compromising relationship with the beautiful and willful wife of a well-connected French businessman. All games, in the end, must be played against the dark backdrop of a city that has been the center of Middle Eastern intrigue for millennia, the stony ground where Cain slew Abel, where Saladin once ruled, and where Nikolai Faroun must discover the key to the murder of a courageous woman who dared to disturb the ancient order.

A gripping murder mystery, Night Falls on Damascus richly evokes a time and place where the deadly conflict between modernism and tradition in the Middle East first came into play.

Praise for Ghost Eaters

"A swashbuckling, seafaring novel with mystical overtones."

—-Publishers Weekly

"An exciting, smoothly written naval adventure set in Malaysia during 1875. Touching on the politics of war, the power of superstition, and the fragility of civilization, this is exhilarating escapist fare."

—-Booklist

"The book is peopled with rich, enigmatic characters whose pasts are shrouded in mystery and whose motives are close held secrets."

—-Jim Nelson, author of the Revolution at Sea series

"Glorious shades of Joseph Conrad, but with wry humor! Splendidly written and an intriguing adventure /mystery in the grand old style."

—-Dewey Lambdin, author of the Alan Lewrie series

"Unashamedly and convincingly Conradian in its subject matter and scope, and in the raw and elemental language of its telling . . . this is the work of a devoted and accomplished storyteller, and of a gifted writer and craftsman, for whom the completed tale is considerably more than the sum of its parts."

—-Robert Edric, author of The Broken Lands

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Set in 1930s French-occupied Syria, Highland's engrossing third novel (after 2003's Ghost Eater) centers on the efforts of Nikolai Faroun, "chief of the Damascus Prefecture," to solve the murder of Vera Tamiri, a beautiful, modern woman from a prominent Damascus family. That a jealous lover is the culprit is only the most obvious explanation, and Faroun suspects more complicated motives behind the demise of a philanthropic woman working for social change in a politically volatile city. His inquiries disturb the unwritten rules and double standards especially regarding women of the many closed societies uneasily coexisting in Damascus. Born to a Maronite Christian father from Beirut and a Russian mother, Faroun is an unusual protagonist. While some of the murky intrigue is hard to keep track of, it adds to the sense of mystery. (Dec.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
No, there never really was peace in the Middle East. Six months into his tenure as Chief of the Damascus Prefecture, Nikolai Faroun has gone through four assistants, been abandoned by his German girlfriend and his cat, and been told by his superior that he has five days to solve the case of the corpse in the murky Barada River before the case is handed over to his rival Philomel Durac, who handles state security for the Surete. Why was beautiful Vera Tamiri sliced up, weighted down in a burlap bag and dumped in the river, a fate previously reserved for traitors? Did one of her many lovers kill her in a jealous rage? Was it her gambling debts, the shame she brought to her brother Umar and the family honor, someone bent on avenging matters dating back to King Faisal's 1918 Land Trust? Or did the answer lie in a ledger Vera kept that seemed to implicate the five warring Damascus political/religious factions? A mute child at the Hotel Nurredine, where Vera and her lovers trysted, helps identity three suspects. Although one confesses, it's torture, not truth, that makes him speak. Undeterred, Faroun soldiers on, withstanding enmities begun 2,000 years ago that fuel the area's current political chaos. Highland (Ghost Eater, not reviewed) is the perfect guide to understanding just how wrong-headed the Westerners have been about Levantine politics.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312337896
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 12/12/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.65 (w) x 8.66 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Frederick Highland has been, according the seasons and the tides, a tropical agriculturalist, merchant seaman, and university lecturer. He has traveled widely, lived in the Far East, the Middle East, and Europe and currently writes in the state of Washington.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Even in the year 1903, caravans still traveled the Silk Road to Damascus, but they were no longer the great treasure trains of Arabian legend. Since the building of the Suez Canal, the ancient trade had dwindled. No more did one hear the shivering of bells on the harnesses of a thousand camels. The caravanners who stubbornly continued to ply their trade were as resigned as the brutes they cursed and coaxed out of the desert wastes. Times were hard. Even the bedouin bandits let them pass in peace. A score of half-laden camels were scarcely worth the fight. Western travelers were more likely to swoop down upon them in these days, cameras clicking. The drivers posed for piasters, but their smiles were worn and as bleak as their prospects. Then on they plodded to Damascus, travel-worn memorials to the passing of an age, knowing they would have little trouble finding a bed. The Eight-Gated City with its soaring minarets still dominated the fertile Syrian plain, but now that steamships carried the riches of the Orient to Beirut, the inns of landlocked Damascus were silent and empty. Some compared the city to a once-pampered courtesan who had turned spiteful and hard.

Not that she had ever been even-tempered. Men had fought over her beguiling favors for centuries, and she had encouraged these attentions. Nor could she be trusted. Damascus was like a lover, wrote a Sufi poet, who lifted her veil while concealing a knife behind her back. Perhaps this history of deceit was on the mind of Tayeb Faroun as he spoke to his son, Nikolai, in the garden of their newly acquired villa overlooking the ancient city.

"A Turkish general was murdered here," said Tayeb Faroun. "Before this place became ours."

"Murdered, Father?"

"In his bath. By his body servant."

Young Nikolai turned his attention from a column of listless Turkish cavalry ambling through the Gate of Jupiter, or, as the Arabs called it, the Bab Al-Jabiyah, the Gate of Blessings. Sitting on the stone wall of the villa, he was practically eye to eye with the taciturn man in the business suit. He knew his father did not make up stories. His mother had been the storyteller. But his father kept much to himself and rarely said anything at all.

"Why did he kill the general, sir?"

"How old are you, Nikolai?"

"Ten, sir."

Tayeb Faroun took out an English cigarette and tapped it thoughtfully on a gold case before lighting up.

"The motive, it was rumored, was revenge. It seems the old general favored the company of young men and so the jealous body servant cut his throat while he was bathing. But I don't think that is what really happened. The true story is that the general had become very popular, and this offended the Sublime Porte."

"The Grand Door?" young Nikolai asked.

"That is the title—the honorific—by which the sultan in Istanbul is known."

"So the general offended the sultan?"

"Oh, yes. The body servant was merely carrying out the sultan's instructions. Sultans can be very jealous too." Tayeb Faroun released smoke in a long exhale and turned his attention to the city below. "Every house you see in the town below us, every room in every tenement of that city beyond," said Tayeb Faroun to his son, "has a thousand dark stories like that one, as far back as men remember."

"Why is that, Father?"

"Because Damascus is the oldest city in the world. Even older than Jericho in Palestine, I'm told."

"Older than Jericho?" the boy asked in disbelief.

Tayeb Faroun pointed to a hill in the distance. Nikolai stood on the garden wall to get a better look. "Abel is buried there."

"Cain slew him in envy," said the boy a bit self-consciously.

"Unfortunately, that murder wasn't the last. You might say the idea caught on," he chuckled, pleased at his grim joke.

"What happened to Cain, Papa?"

"God banished him to wander the earth."

"The police didn't put him in jail?"

"God was the police," said Tayeb Faroun. "And he was a lot tougher than the Turks."

Nikolai could not say for certain that this memory had been an omen, but now that he was chief of the Damascus Prefecture, he would often take his lunch to the promontory known as Abel's Tomb and look over the restive city whose peace he was assigned to keep. In the thirty years since young Nikolai had spoken with his father in the villa garden, great changes had overtaken Syria. The Turks had been defeated in the Great War and expelled from most of the Near East. For a brief moment of time, Prince Faisal al-Husseini, the grave and dignified warrior who had led the famed Arab Revolt against the Turks, had ruled the land. But in 1920, the French had driven the prince from Damascus and taken over Syria and Lebanon under a League of Nations mandate. The French were supposed to prepare their Arab wards for self-government, but everyone knew the occupiers intended to stay. So Arab resistance groups sprang up and the result was revolt, riot, and assassination. The French were heavy-handed, favoring artillery to diplomacy, a policy that fed the resistance.

By 1933, and six months after Nikolai Faroun had joined the Damascus civil police force known as the Prefecture, Syria verged on anarchy. The journey that had led Faroun to this post had begun when the young man had defied his father and signed up with a French Legionnaire unit during the Great War. It took many years for him to find his way home to Lebanon, but when he returned to Beirut, he learned that his father had died of heart failure in 1922. Gone were the fortune and his father's properties. The Maronite businessman from Lebanon had lost everything in speculation following the war. All that remained was the modest red-tiled villa in Mohajirene overlooking Damascus. The villa had been boarded up for years.

Faroun had been pleased to claim and renovate the property. He had hired some workmen. They had done a good job of restoring the roof and the façade. The interior of the house was still crammed with unpacked boxes, but Faroun was getting around to the task. The hours at the Prefecture were long, and some nights he didn't come home at all.

It was noon and one of Faroun's pleasures was to bring his lunch to Abel's Tomb. From this vantage point, the policeman could just discern the outline of the wall where he had once listened to father's story about the general and the sultan. He had just turned forty, a passage that seemed defined by his isolation. Long before his father died, his Russian mother had disappeared into the depths of her native land. An only child, he was the last of his father's line. A Lebanese working for the French occupiers, he was not a popular man. When his German girlfriend had thrown him over for a French officer a month ago, she had left behind a brindled cat. The cat had run away. Perhaps if he had been home once in a while and fed the thing, it would have stayed. Faroun folded the piece of wax paper that had held his egg sandwich and slipped it into his pocket. There was not much to mark the tomb of the Old Testament's first murder victim, an ancient stone cairn topped by a weathered iron crescent. Lunch over, he flipped up the kickstand of the Triumph motorbike and charged the air with the roar of the impatient engine. Down below, the crumbling honey-colored walls of Damascus were wonderfully picturesque. The oldest city in the world seemed in harmony with perfect creation, the navel of the earth, home of our first garden, the crossroads of ancient empire, and a place where all caravans found their end and their beginning. It looked picture-postcard sweet.

Abel's Tomb held a far deeper truth, as Nikolai Faroun's father had pointed out so long ago. Murder had begun here and it had caught on.

Copyright © 2006 by Frederick Highland

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    complex somewhat convoluted historical mystery

    In 1930s French controlled Syria, Chief of the Damascus Prefecture Police Inspector Nikolai Faroun investigates the gruesome murder of modern westernized woman Vera Tamiri. Nikolai always tries to do a thorough job, but this time the pressure is higher than normal as the victim comes from an affluent powerful local family. Nikolai assumes like most of the brass that an angry jealous lover killed Vera for dumping him though who remains an issue. However, being a professional he begins to also look elsewhere amongst her friends, family, and business associates especially the latter as Vera was deeply involved in many philanthropic projects demanding social changes to grant rights to the abused and oppressed women and children, who in the her mind were treated as being less than slaves. --- NIGHT FALLS ON DAMASCUS is actually a complex somewhat convoluted historical mystery that brings to life Syria during the 1930s French occupation. Readers will follow the exploits of Faroun as he investigates the murder, but also learn how angry the locals are with the European neo-colonial occupation. Though two decades later, Frederick Highland¿s fine mystery will remind the audience of the Mamur Zapt tales by Michael Pearce. Sub-genre fans will appreciate this whodunit and want more appearances from Police Inspector Faroun. --- Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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