Think of Dubai and what comes to mind… Kitsch Arabia, third-world labourers and decadent Westerners negotiating medieval law. Or pristine beaches, unblemished blue skies, world-leading architecture and a shoppers’ paradise. Unless one has lived there, one’s perspective will likely be influenced by glossy promos or the international media, wherein Dubai gets measured via rudimentary metrics: millions of dollars, thousands of feet tall, and number of years in jail for kissing.
To get under the skin of the place, any place, one must travel – in person, or via the imagination. And in The Place That Didn’t Exist, Mark Watson’s Dubai-based novel brings together a number of strong ingredients: well-heeled ex-pats, a Hollywood star, and young guns seeking a career high amidst personal abandonment:
“They left Heathrow on a morning so gloomy it could have passed for dusk, and now ten hours later it was the opposite: a blue-purple night which felt like day … Tim stood on the beach, enjoying the unlikeliness of it: sand beneath his shoes and the great expanse of sea, where twenty-four hours ago he’d been in London with the waterproofed charity collectors and pigeons and polite ill-will.”
The elixir of sunshine, the irrepressible excitement of wall-to-wall bling – the elemental appeal of Dubai for jaded Londoners, indeed any kind of suburban trudger in a temperate climate, is convincingly brought across. And then the heat is turned up with a death – a murder – setting up a classic whodunit.
The first impression of the protagonist, Tim, a young advertising exec on location to film an advert, is that of the quintessential British trier: slightly bumbling but good-humoured, talented, and forever being blown off-course by an ill-wind. What this means for the reader is that we instantly connect – Tim is us and we are Tim. It takes zero effort to get on-side and on-board for the ride. Or put another way, The Place That Didn’t Exist is just what you’d want from an action-adventure: a flawed but loveable hero, exotic location, pacey and funny. What’s not to like?
So far, so…standard. But this work, which in the set up follows a classic pattern, goes off-piste. Firstly, the protagonist is not one-dimensional – following the murder, Watson stirs his ingredients faster and faster, allowing the character to morph: his confusion, disorientation and eventual disenchantment with Dubai become palpable. The break down in the love affair is skilfully done by Watson, with some standout lines:
“A woman in a turquoise sarong informed Tim that this was an exhibition for The World, the new group of man-made islands each resembling a country; he had an exciting opportunity to be part of something iconic.
‘Are you interested in investing, sir?’
Tim gave her what he hoped was an inclusively self-deprecating smile. ‘I rent my flat at the moment, so I’m not sure I can stretch to an island.’
The woman beamed, her eyes blank. ‘So you are interested, sir?’”
But then the curve ball… Part Three of the novel, which is the resolution of the whodunit, departs from the body of the story: from the death, from the filming of the advert, from even Dubai. Given how set-piece the novel to this point is (albeit entertaining), there is nothing orthodox about how it plays out – the revealing of who committed the murder, and why. Stylistically too, it’s a departure – whereas the prose hitherto was solid, in the extended wrap-up, Watson takes it to a whole new level – it is sensational; the intensity of what is almost a separate long short story, eclipses that of even the murder itself. All this serves to elevate what was a highly entertaining though ‘recognisable’ work, to a different plane.
Any Cop?: For those well-versed in murder mysteries and hoping for something new, they will not be disappointed. The Place That Didn’t Exist is a little bit special.