The Sand Men by Christopher Fowler

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As the newspapers tell us, Britain is suffering from poor productivity. But that’s not a charge that can be levelled at Christopher Fowler. He’s a prolific crime novelist, but also a columnist, short story writer, horror author, memoirist and dedicated blogger. As well as recently publishing The Burning Man, he has a story collection next month, Bryant & May – London’s Glory. First, though, there’s standalone novel The Sand Men, a sinister thriller set in a Dubai resort for the super-rich.

With its opening quote from JG Ballard, Fowler is not shy about paying homage to one of his literary heroes. Much of The Sand Men is set around Dream World, a fictional resort on the reclaimed coastline of Dubai (a quick Google search suggests it’s not too far from reality). Huge amounts of money are being poured in to attract visitors willing to pay $35,000 a night to stay in a luxury hotel that underlines their separation from mere mortals.

The obscenely rich may not be particularly interesting, but the technical experts who facilitate this lifestyle are ripe for fictional exploration. The Sand Men follows the lives of these expats, who have been lured to live in an exclusive compound and work long hours for big salaries to get the resort finished on time. Roy, an engineer, has moved to Dubai from Chiswick in London with his wife, Lea, and their teenage daughter Cara. The oppressive heat, social conformity and ambitious architecture are a culture shock, particularly for Lea, who soon faces losing her identity.

While Roy is increasingly absent and Cara quickly makes friends at her international school, Lea becomes confined to the employees’ residential compound and the gleaming, soulless shopping mall. For a professional woman with a handsomely remunerated husband, there’s not much to do in Dubai apart from shop and share recipes. She even has a maid provided by the company. Fowler captures the soul-sapping reality of this cosseted lifestyle, which Lea tries to evade by reviving her journalistic career in a city that prefers its news to resemble PR puffery.

In fact, there’s plenty of real news right under Lea’s nose as girls have been going missing, troublesome residents in the compound have suffered bizarre accidents and foreign construction workers have died on the job. The novel opens with a worker being frozen to death on a beach. If that seems impossible, remember that this is Dubai where nature is being tamed for the wealthy. Unfortunately for this particular workman, one of the refrigeration pipes cooling the beach exploded.

One character describes this construction work as like “terraforming a new planet”, and the bizarre world that Fowler delineates is almost like something from a science fiction story. Of course, there’s an element of dystopia in Dream World, where profit and schedules are prioritised over justice and equality. There’s the threat of terrorism, as well as a hidden society on the fringes of the compound: a seedy underpass where the lowly construction workers congregate.

There are shades of JG Ballard in the novel’s concrete netherworld and, in particular, the lives of the expat westerners, who largely experience life in Dubai in an air-conditioned chill behind glass or become detached from reality on an artificial beach under a burning sun. But while Ballard might have taken a perverse pleasure in the dystopian modernity of Dubai, Fowler fashions an addictive thriller that’s full of murky terror and paranoia as well as a gender divide that resembles the Stepford Wives. He also hones in on moments of sudden panic in the region: what do you do when you lock yourself out of your car on the edge of the desert?

It has to be said that the inconclusive ending won’t be for everyone. There’s also an unfortunate typo that has a character “sneaking off into the dessert” – perhaps they met a sticky end! It’s a tiny error that – briefly – undercuts the narrative tension. At one point, Fowler also threatens to revert to type when his plot starts to resemble an 80s horror yarn (more James Herbert than James Ballard). But he does get things back on track in a novel that is clever, chilling and also original, both in its concept and structure. The Sand Men is easily one of the most readable thrillers of 2015.

Read our interview with Christopher Fowler here.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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