It is 1930. Nikolai Faroun is the son of a Lebanese Christian Maronite and a Russian circus performer. Nikolai is an Inspector in the French-run Damascus police force. Life in Syria isn't easy. Appointed after the end of the First World War to prepare Syria for self-rule, the French are running the country and have no intention of leaving. This has created a great deal of tension and has divided the nation. The French regard the Syrians with contempt and the Syrians hate the French and despise anyone they see as supporting the regime. There are also the beginnings of civil unrest: rioting in the street and there have been bombings.

When the murdered body of Vera Tamiri is fished out of the Barada River, Nikolai knows it isn't going to be easy. Vera is a member of a wealthy Syrian family. One of those families who have traditionally had a great deal of power. Vera lives a somewhat Bohemian lifestyle; she smokes, drinks and has had numerous lovers. Vera has also been campaigning for women's rights. She has set up a clinic for women and has been preparing pamphlets on birth-control. Not exactly activities that are going to endear her to the more traditionally-minded members of the population.

Nikolai sets out to find out the identity of the killer, but he is hampered at every turn. Interference from Vera's family wanting to keep her murder quiet. Political interference from his boss and from the Surete. The French did no one any favours when they divided the police force into two branches: one branch to deal with civil crimes, the other to investigate political crimes. The fact that the Surete are meddling makes Nikolai realise there is far more behind Vera's murder than appearances would suggest.

The investigation takes Nikolai into the convoluted network of influential families, business and politics. It also leads Nikolai to realise that to solve this murder, he has to delve into the events World War I and its aftermath that impacted on Syria.

Set against the backdrop of so much civil unrest and political turmoil, Frederick Highland paints a vivid picture of life on the knife-edge in 1930's Damascus. His descriptions of the city made me dash to my computer several times to look for images of places mentioned in the book. In Nikolai Faroun, Highland has created a character who has a great deal of baggage in his background, which is gradually revealed during the telling of the story. I have the feeling that there is much more to learn about Nikolai and I hope the author is planning a follow-up to NIGHT FALLS ON DAMASCUS. It seems to be crying out for more and so am I.

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