Dubai. The name itself conjures up images of awe-inspiring skyscrapers, dazzling malls and all-around opulence. It has been touted as the ‘City of the Future,’ ‘The Center of Now,’ and ‘The Ultimate Fantasy’ ever since its cosmetic transfiguration in the mid 90s. Everything associated with Dubai is groundbreaking, futuristic and progressive looking. However, as people visiting or residing there soon discover, the staggering skyline and the perpetual glamour of the city is the ultimate smoke and mirrors concealing the adverse offshoots of Dubai’s cultural mosaic. Mark Watson sets his sixth novel against this distinctively flashy backdrop. As there are hardly any mystery novels set in Dubai, this should potentially give Watson’s book an edge over other thrillers, with the enigmatic aura of the city seeping into the narrative, which is centered on a murder. However, as it turns out, an intriguing mise-en-scène is not enough to warrant a compelling story.
The story begins in the April of 2008, when the world’s economy was teetering on the brink of a meltdown. Tim, a junior creative at an advertising firm in England, snags a once in the lifetime opportunity to supervise an advertisement campaign for a charity organization in Dubai. He is enthused at all the future prospects this big break will hold for him. As expected, he is completely bedazzled by the enticing sights and sounds the glitzy city has to offer. The state-of-the-art chalet, ostentatious buffets and sprawling shopping malls, housing every brand known to man, leave him befuddled, taking him a while to find his bearings.
Things hit a wrong note when a crew member, Raf, is found dead in his suite. The circumstances of Raf’s death are perplexing. Tim, who is already wary, what with being in an unknown place, feels increasingly out of his depths as he tries to makes sense of Raf’s death. Besides, Jason Streng, the mastermind behind the charity funding the campaign, seems to be acting odd and hiding something crucial from the team.
With his advertising expertise, Tim has piercing insights into how Dubai markets itself as a brand:
Billboards nestled on rooftops and yelled from the roadsides. Dirham prices were plastered over images of sports cars; phone networks and satellite-TV suppliers jostled for motorists’ attentions. There were huge posters bearing nothing but the beaky, affable face of Sheikh Mohammad. But mostly, what was advertised was the city itself. BE PART OF SOMETHING EXCEPTIONAL, urged a billboard for a chalk-white, tree-dotted residential development. DUBAI PEARL: WHERE THE FUTURE IS TODAY.
Watson offers some shrewd observations on the disparate cultural tapestry of Dubai. I wish he had kept the momentum going by expounding on that but, unfortunately, his story itself is the weakest element of the book. Tim comes across as quite an uninteresting protagonist who seems to be a bit paranoid from the start. The writer could have used the intrinsic claustrophobia and discomposure that is embedded in the shiny veneer of the futuristic hotel he is staying at to great effect. However, he relies on half-baked plot twists, stereotyped characterization, and clumsily employed suspense tropes to drive his narrative.
One of the major niggles I had with this book was how it consistently yielded to ethnocentrism. One of the crew members is referred to as the ‘Fixer.’ We don’t find much abut him except for the fact that he is an immigrant and one of those shady people, the likes of which are found around the world, who can get things done inconspicuously. His character was not the least mysterious to begin with and neither did the writer make any real effort to give it grey undertones except for explicitly telling us about his accent and middle eastern roots, as if that itself should make us watch out for him. Tim is on edge from the moment he lands in Dubai. He gets unreasonably suspicious about the apparently skillful staff, consisting of natives, as every time he comes back to his hotel room he finds it scrupulously tidied up. Anywhere else in the world, such an efficient hotel staff would be appreciated but here Tim gets worked up about their inconspicuous work ethic, obsessing over what time do they come to clean his room and what else do they see. You would think he was in a tent in Afghanistan rather than a plush hotel in Dubai, going by his constant agitation.
He once goes to the lavish food court, which has innumerable cuisines on offer, and orders himself a God Bless the Stars and Stripes Burger. He then reflects that “not far from here, there were people so opposed to the United States that they were prepared to die to make their point.” This random statement is not only reductionist but also ignorant. A little more research, even idle googling, would have revealed to the writer how convoluted and precarious most of the reasons for some factions being opposed to the United States are. Reducing the warped ramifications of US’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, including suicide attacks, to simply proving hatred for US is being blithely indifferent. As a matter of fact, the majority of the causalities after such attacks are of native people. Similarly, after news of Raf’s death is picked up by the media, Tim’s mother calls to tell him that according to the media the Dubai people are saying that the murder is fault of the Western world. Firstly, this seems like a counter intuitive reaction specially when we are told that the hotel management tried to keep the whole sordid affair hushed. Besides, we are never told why a thorough police investigation never took place, which would seem like the standard protocol, specially if the case is getting media coverage.
Now I am not sure how much time Watson has actually spent in Dubai and what experiences prejudiced him against it but for me, his skewed perspective did not provide any insights into the experience of Dubai. His preconceived notions permeate his narrative, which is never a good sign for a fictional story. After the murder, Bradley, one of the minor characters in the story and Tim’s colleague, reflects on how Dubai is still the Arab world and the ways of life is ‘going to have consequences.’ If that really was the case then high profile celebrities like the Beckhams and Jolie-Pitts wouldn’t have homes there and if we are really being practical, the body count would be much higher in Dubai since expats account for a whopping 92% of Dubai’s population.
Most of the narrative focuses on the crew discussing amongst themselves who might be the culprit. I went into this book expecting some sort of crime fiction but instead what I got was a dull murder mystery, which was revealed way before the climax, followed by Tim’s endless contemplations and brainstorming to come up with the cause of the murder. In the end, though, nothing is really resolved as Tim is so shaken by the death that he decides to go back home. In a way, our protagonist checks out of the hotel in the same way as Watson deserts his novel. It’s almost as if Watson loses interest in weaving together the mystery and leaves it midway. This slapdash execution meant that I, as a reader, did not feel invested in any of the characters or in the mystery.
There are rare glimpses into the grim underbelly of Dubai, hidden behind the shimmery facade. The plights of the sizeable immigrant workforce, which works illegally and serves as the backbone of Dubai, the discrimination faced by bedouins, the glaring economic and social disparities between the rich Emirati and the working class, and the incongruent way working staff is treated make for insightful reading. However, Watson never fully delves into these themes, preferring to only briefly and fleetingly touch upon these issues. In addition, Watson misses out on a great opportunity to intricately profile Dubai, one of the fastest growing economic hubs, at the precipice of an economic crash and how it dealt with the aftermath of the meltdown. More astute commentary on these issues would have made for a more compelling book. Watson seems content in only pointing out these issues, and then explore them at a surface level.
The Place That Didn’t Exist had a lot of potential but suffers because of its superficial story, clunky plotlines, and uninspired execution. That being said, I hope we get to see more writers setting their thrillers in Dubai as its elusiveness serves as the perfect backdrop for mysteries to unfold.