Sunday 13 August 2017

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

This is a debut novel by the author, Ausma Zehanat Khan, a Canadian Muslim with a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialisation in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. The story follows Detective Esa Khattak and his colleague, Sergeant Rachel Getty, as they investigate the death of Christopher Drayton who fell to his death. Was it an accident or was he pushed? Detective Esa was formerly with Toronto homicide, then counterintelligence, and now heads up Canada’s Community Policing Section (CPS) basically a unit that takes on sensitive cases involving minority groups. So why has he been called in to investigate what looks like the simple accidental death of an unassuming businessman? Without giving away too many spoilers, it soon becomes clear that Drayton’s death might not be all that it seems and in fact is inextricably linked to the genocide that was Bosnia in the early 1990’s

I found The Unquiet Dead an odd novel in some ways, for in a sense it has two faces. In one sense, it’s an almost sedate whodunit harking back to the Golden Age. We have a relatively large cast of characters and the protagonists – Detective Esa and Sergeant Getty – must decide who amongst them might have had motive to do Christopher Drayton in. There’s very little violence in this novel and next to no gore. Even the actual murder – if indeed Drayton was a victim of foul play – is relatively benign (at least by the standards of most modern-day crime fiction). But then there’s the other “face” to the novel, the motive for doing the victim in, namely the mass slaughter that occurred during the Bosnian war. As a former current affairs journalist, I well remember the horror of Bosnia and the sense of shame at how Western governments failed to act to stop the mass rapes, the pillage, the ethnic cleansing – a mealy-mouthed euphemism for mass-killing if there ever was one - the murders. These horrors inculcate the novel from the very beginning and stand in stark contrast with the almost amiable tone the story would take otherwise.

The Unquiet Dead is about secrets and whether anyone can ever truly escape their past. In this way, the violence and brutality of the Bosnian conflict can never truly be buried. Despite the best efforts of those who would rather it went away, the conflict and its aftermath cannot fail but rear its ugly head to breach the equanimity of modern day Canadian society. On this level, the novel worked well and kept me engaged. Equally, however, it depends on what you want from your crime fiction. Personally, I prefer my crime novels to be grittier and more to the noir end of the spectrum and The Unquiet Dead, despite its grim subject matter, is too placid for my liking.

That said, this is an impressive debut and I certainly will be looking out for more from this author.

3 out of 5 stars.   

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