Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Lisa Black

Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department. Her books have been translated into six languages. Evidence of Murder reached the New York Times mass market bestseller’s list.

Blunt Impact, Black's latest novel featuring forensic scientist Theresa MacLean, debuts on April 1st.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading: Black's reply:
I am currently reading Kingdom of Strangers by Zoë Ferraris, a fascinating look at life and work inside a police department in Saudi Arabia. A serial killer’s victims have been unearthed, but so many other factors are at work as well: the inspector’s unhappy home life, the female lab tech’s desire to do much more than her society will allow, and the overall political/religious structure that dictates every aspect of their existence.

The severely imposed religious laws are quite clear, but each person’s interpretation varies according to their personal beliefs. The inspector is continually frustrated by the higher-ups refusal to let women do work for which they would be enormously helpful (i.e., typical police work rather than only that which takes them into contact with women, never men), and he risks his own career by pushing to expand their duties. Anyone can make a complaint against another person for a moral violation—either because they feel that what you have done is truly offensive to Islam, or because they simply covet your position and with you fired or jailed, their coast is cleared.

The female lab tech’s position is even more precarious. Women are not allowed to come in contact with strange men, only relatives and friends of their husband’s. For example only the single female pathologist can do the autopsies on the nineteen victims, because for a man to look at them would violate the dead victim’s virtue, slowing the progress of the investigation to a crawl. The lab tech—Katya—is allowed to work at the station only because she let them believe that she is married (which is not exactly true) and her husband has given permission for her to work (which is somewhat true—her fiancée, a devout man, has a continual struggle with her job and yet will deal with it if it makes her happy). The unspoken weight on her mind is that, despite all his promises that she can keep her job and even advance in it, he could change his mind after the wedding and there would be nothing she could do about it.

The laws are strict and tough and to a Westerner, confusing. Because women are not allowed to drive, they have to take taxis, driven by strange men. They have to cover their hair and veil their face, yet all but the most devout have cell phones. As in the Bible, men can have more than one wife, but if he sleeps with a woman to whom he is not married he can be beheaded. A single man would be guilty of ‘illegal sex’ which is not as serious, but could still derail a career. Ninety percent of the labor force are immigrants, usually the poor from the Phillipines or Africa, doing the work that Saudis are too wealthy or devout to do. But if these workers are abused, they cannot go back home without their employer’s permission, leading to a huge ghetto of displaced workers who just want to leave but cannot.

Of course there is happiness there as well. Many of the police officers are dedicated and sincere. Families are close, both physically and emotionally. The kids play and bounce on their parents’ knees just as in any other country. But what I came away with overall (aside from a fervent gratitude for having been born in America) is a great empathy for the characters; what a tense, nerve-wracking tightrope walk of an existence this must be, where one small misstep—for anyone, male or female—can have such disastrous consequences.
Visit Lisa Black's website.

--Marshal Zeringue