The ancient capital of Damascus in 1933 is the scene of a grisly murder. The beautiful Vera Tamiri, a Syrian woman who was quietly seeking to redefine the role of Arab women, is found curled in a fetal position in the Barada River, tied up in a burlap bag, a gaping wound in her neck and a sign of the cross sliced across her stomach.
Newly elected after his previous appointee was abruptly killed in a terrorist attack, the young Nikolai Faroun goes into action to investigate the crime. He first calls upon Guy de Montcalm, the current French Delegate in Damascus, who can't understand why anyone would want to kill such a gorgeous woman.
Montcalm tells Faroun that Vera was generous, beautiful, and a total inspiration to Arab women, even moving a whole new generation. Indeed, Vera spoke to all those girls who yearned to bring Syria into the modern world by challenging the stereotypes of Arab women.
Given Vera's high-profile status and the fact that she was a member of a leading Syrian family, it is not surprising that her efforts to bring modernization to Damascus society were ruffling a few feathers, especially when she decided to devote her time to charitable causes for women, namely her work at a local
There was also another side to Vera: she loved to party and had recently surrounded herself with a variety of lovers, gigolos, humorists and gamblers to the extent that even her officious brother Umar Tamiri said that "she just went too far too fast."
Faroun is positive that someone harbored jealous feelings toward her or had recently been jilted by her. Apparently, Vera had of late been courting the attentions of the good-looking legionnaire Captain Martel. She was also whispered to have a boyfriend by the name of Salim al Quassi, a man with money and a violent temper who was probably bankrolling his beautiful gambling companion.
As Faroun's investigation continues, he soon stumbles into a minefield involving the administrative maze the French constructed to rule their League of Nations mandate. He also discovers that nationalist opposition to French law is steadily growing, with the Christians rumored to be in league with the French to impoverish the Muslim majority, intent to seize Muslim homes and drive them out of the city.
Faroun discovers that somehow Vera had become embroiled in this complex web of political intrigue, unaware of the delicate balance she was playing in the elaborate apparatus of religious fanaticism and public policy.
A dozen wealthy families and landowners in effect pull the strings, affecting a whole of the City's destiny.
Author Frederick Highland beautifully evokes an era where a thousand dark stories inhabit the furtive back streets of this
city, a metropolis of memory, of ancient gates and monuments, tombs and catacombs.
The novel is indeed a kaleidoscope of images of this ancient capital, from the squalid tenements of the living crowded precariously against sumptuous memorials
"to the dead vying for a little light and space."
Vera certainly crossed the line that no other of her station would dare, and Faroun discovers that certain people are
determined to totally erase the memory of her life - and, sadly, even her death.
Faroun hugs to the honesty and integrity that fuels his life, but he also becomes hemmed in by the memory of betrayal at one end of Vera's family history and the reality of an increasingly corrupt milieu that is fuelled by those around him.