–Post by Molly
Ausma Zehanat Khan is a remarkable woman. She has a PhD in International Human Rights Law. She has traveled the world, taught at several universities, and worked as Editor in Chief of Muslim Girl Magazine. And now, she has written a detective novel. Not just any detective novel – Khan’s debut, The Unquiet Dead, synthesizes all her previous subjects of research and life experience into a moody and damning exploration of the legacy of war crimes and the experience of Muslims in Canada. The novel also explores child welfare, the history of Spain before the Reconquista, workplace romance, the enmity of old friends, and much, much more. The Unquiet Dead, like its author, is difficult to define in a single sentence.
The Unquiet Dead begins with an interrupted prayer. Detective Esa Khattack is head of Canada’s Community Policing Section, or CPS, a unit designed to handle cases sensitive to minority populations. He gets a call mid-devotion and goes to meet up with his partner, Rachel Getty, to investigate a suspicious death in a wealthy enclave.
Christopher Drayton, a wealthy retired businessman, has fallen to his death on the treacherous bluffs behind his garden. As Khattack and Getty begin their investigation into Drayton’s carefully constructed life, they find evidence that Drayton was concealing his true identity as a war criminal responsible for heinous and genocidal actions in Bosnia. But Drayton was none too popular in his assumed identity either, and Khattack and Getty must contend with an ever-growing number of suspects on their list, along with the nagging suspicion that Drayton’s death may have been an accident, as their investigation becomes increasingly complex.
Khattack and Getty have their own personal demons as well, and Ausma Zehanat Khan does an excellent job weaving her detectives’ personal stories in and out of the main narrative of investigation. Getty and Khattack work well together – Getty’s bluntness, pragmatism, and distaste for fashion mixes well with Khattack’s urbane and elegant demeanor; echoes of Holmes and Watson sound throughout the novel in the detectives’ interactions. They also serve as a cautious support network for each other; reluctant to share details of personal struggles for fear of damaging their working relationship, they nevertheless act with loyalty and support towards the other whenever possible.
Despite her well-realized main characters, Khan jumps from point-of-view to point-of-view, showcasing both her extraordinary empathy and her gift for psychological insights. Much of the novel draws on her research into wartime atrocities in Bosnia, and her novel contains several heart-breaking excursions into the Bosnian experience. Khan has done what many writers have done before her – she has learned the history of a people targeted for their identity, dehumanized, and massacred, and she has put the medium of fiction to work on their behalf, restoring individualism, humanity, and unique experiences, and creating an opportunity for readers to empathize with, not otherize, the experience of Bosnian Muslims.
Ausma Zahanat Khan taps into something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time – the power of literature to bear witness to human suffering, to condemn those who perpetuate it and those who do nothing, and to help readers come to terms with a past whose effects will not cease to linger, and should not. Fiction may be an escape for many. It certainly is not the same thing as reporting a physical truth. But fiction, unlike history, unlike statistics, unlike any fact, can bring to life voices that have been silenced – in other words, fiction can tell us an emotional truth. Fiction can turn a number back into a human being. Fiction can transform a buried and forgotten past into a haunting present. Ausma Zahanat Khan understands this, and that is why The Unquiet Dead is a stunning novel, a damning critique, and hopefully, the start to a long writing career.
Copies of The Unquiet Dead are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.