The Place That Didn’t Exist, by Mark Watson, is a simmering murder mystery set in Dubai. It is a variation on the locked-room trope, and the mirage like setting of the desert city is perfect for all that unfolds. So much exists beneath a veneer of excess and is not what it seems when probed. Even the suspected murder may have a more mundane explanation, one of over indulgence as is common in such a place.
The plot centres around a group of film makers and backers, brought together to shoot a commercial for a charitable organisation based in Dubai. It is largely narrated by a Junior Creative, Tim Callaghan, who is representing the London advertising agency who pitched for and won the project. Tim has travelled little and is thrilled to have the opportunity to experience the renowned and glittering metropolis.
The other members of the team appear more jaded. They also seem to know more about each other. Tim soon suspects that there are secrets to which he is not being made privy. As he struggles with the excessive yet sterile surroundings, the obsequious staff, and the slow progress of the project, he tries to fathom the relationships between his colleagues as well as their aims. When one of them is found dead the surreal atmosphere of this improbable location take a darker turn.
The author’s observations of people and place balance humour with a healthy critique of westerners’ desire to escape the reality of their competitive, acquisitive lives via temporary oblivion. Feeling good about shooting an expensive commercial which aims to encourage charitable contributions demonstrates how shallow good intentions can be. Dubai is emblematic of the inequalities in global wealth distribution, yet it is still regarded as a desirable destination.
The denouement explains why events occured without asking for concord. It points out the little noticed clues required to solve the puzzle presented.
Throughout the writing is thought provoking but never heavy. This is an engrossing and entertaining read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Picador.