BookBrowse Reviews The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

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The Unquiet Dead

A Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak Novel

by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan X
The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2015, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2015, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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A seemingly run-of-the-mill crime in the suburbs of Toronto opens a wider window into the Bosnian conflict.

Esa Khattak is not your everyday fictional detective. He is a second-generation Canadian Muslim who has worked in Toronto's homicide squad and Canadian counterintelligence. Now Khattak heads the CPS, the Community Policing Section, a new branch of the Canadian federal policing system, tasked with investigations that involve the Islamic community.

In The Unquiet Dead, the Department of Justice assigns Khattak — who works with his junior partner Rachel Getty — to investigate the death of Christopher Drayton, a white man from the Scarborough Bluffs area near Toronto. Drayton was rich and middle-aged, with a gold-digging fiancée and an interest in funding a local museum of Andalusian art. When Getty and Khattak begin to suspect that Drayton was in fact a wanted war criminal linked to atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, the novel grows both darker and more engaging.

While the primary story is Khattak and Getty's investigation, Khan also takes her readers to war-torn Bosnia in 1995, in particular the massacre at Srebrenica. Khan, who holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans, shines light on the conflict's ethnic cleansing that took place through acts of genocide against Bosnian Muslims. Chapters of the novel are set in this past, detailing the experiences of various unnamed individuals in Bosnia — a young boy, a pair of sisters, an interpreter. As the novel progresses, the reader might wonder whose stories these are and whether characters in the modern day sections of the novel have a past in Bosnia that is yet to be revealed. It's a page-turning plot device that really adds to the reading experience.

In detective fiction we have come to expect hidden difficulties and personal challenges for the investigators and Khan delivers. Getty is keen to know more about Khattak's personal life, but her senior officer, a widower and a loner, is not easily drawn out. As complex as Khattak is, Getty is an excellent character in her own right, strong and determined, but also vulnerable. She is not as confident as she appears and has her own personal demons to attend to — including a violent father and a brother she has not seen for seven years. Khan deftly creates two characters that are as often explained by what they don't say as what they do and there is much room for their partnership to develop and grow in future novels.

Where The Unquiet Dead really soars is Khan's sensitive and intelligent portrayal of the violent history of the former Yugoslavia, which raises questions of responsibility, retribution and justice. This is a novel that manages to be informative without being didactic or slow-paced, and to be complex without being confusing. Although none of her characters are based on any one individual, they are drawn from real life equivalents. The afterword showcases Khan's knowledge of the history of the war. While atrocities existed on all sides, Bosnia's Muslim population were specifically targeted for extermination. At one time, the Bosnians were under siege by both Serb and Croat forces.

Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2015, and has been updated for the January 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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