The Sand Men is the new novel by veteran thriller writer Christopher Fowler, and it certainly doesn’t do any favours for the Dubai tourist board. The city itself and its famous holiday resorts are almost the star attraction in the whole novel, as the unease and tenseness created by the unfamiliar and alien environment verges on the supernatural at times.
Lea and Roy are a couple that move to the fabulous manufactured living space for workers of the newest and hottest resort in Dubai, Dream World. The protagonist is Lea, who must put up with this strange new environment, keep her family together, deal with her rather soulless, Stepford-Wives neighbours, and also try to understand more of the dark past of the resort, as she begins to hear the stories about all the mysterious deaths and tragedies that have taken place and been hushed up.
There are multiple themes that run through the novel, and most are handled quite adeptly. There’s the clash between Western and Middle Eastern cultures. The artificiality of the holiday resort industry. The vast gulf between the rich and poor. The role of women in a modern society. The breakdown of a family unit. All of this is tied together with the central mystery, and if I have one major complaint about the novel, it would be that the mystery in my mind was never going to match whatever the author eventually gave the answer to be. I was unsure the whole time as to whether supernatural elements were involved, if it was a conspiracy, etc etc, but to have it eventually revealed let all of that out in one go, and I felt somewhat underwhelmed.
However, the ride until that point was wild, and the Sand Men is a real page turner, in the traditional sense that just enough breadcrumbs are left that you keep trying to follow the trail just a little bit longer.