Saudi Match Point bears the hallmarks of a promising writer of thrillers and those of a novice novelist, in roughly equal measure. Drawing on years of experience overseas as a consultant, technician, foreign-aid worker and (self-admitted) government bureaucrat, author Paul Ulrich economically and effectively conveys the heady atmosphere and multicultural boiling pot of Saudi Arabia. He creates colorful characters whom the reader comes to care about, most especially a sheltered young woman whose plight, in a family that adheres to ultra-strict Wahabbi Muslim teachings, is heartbreaking. And he convincingly mixes real geopolitics into fictional situations.
Less convincing sometimes is the naïveté of some of the characters. Ahmad, a telecommunications worker whose beautiful sister becomes Nick’s love interest, decrypts a diplomatic email and wonders, “Was the U.S. government telling its citizens and the world one thing yet secretly pursuing a different agenda?” But the central character is the deliciously named Nick Hansen, a young China expert with the U.S. State Department, assigned to Saudi Arabia to gauge China’s attitudes towards American activities in the Saudi oil industry. That might not sound fascinating, but as a story engine Ulrich makes it work.
Nick isn’t very interesting, and the author seems to realize this, for he devotes the greater part of the narrative to the assortment of internationals who surround him – notably a globe-trotting ladies’ man from New Zealand, an intriguing Chinese agent, and two Saudi families, one relatively Westernized, the other highly traditional. Ulrich evokes the cruel repression of women in Wahhabi society and conveys the uneasy coexistence of Western interests and Islamist culture. Some plot elements – the conspiracy Nick stumbles upon, the gung-ho action ending – can seem a little unrealistic. But then, we wouldn’t want to be like Ahmad. In the geopolitics of oil, it seems almost anyone is capable of almost anything.
Ulrich’s promise as a suspense-thriller writer shows mainly in his authoritative sense of place and solid feel for character. The writing style needs smoothing, the plot relies too heavily on coincidence, and the prologue isn’t adequately explained at the end (unless I missed something). But I enjoyed the book, and I got a picture of how things are in an “exotic” foreign land. Not too shabby, especially for a first-time novelist tackling a very demanding genre.