Rarely is Auntie M affected by a book so much that she has to let time go by to give it a fair review.
But that’s what happened after closing the last page of this disturbingly powerful novel, The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan.
When the Bosnian War was ongoing, Auntie M was aware of the situation, but for a mother, nurse and new wife without relatives there that were directly affected, it became something noted on the nightly news. Khan removes that distance by bringing war atrocities and their aftermath directly to the reader in the form of lasting affects on several characters who managed to escape.
At the same time, it’s also a police procedural of the strongest kind, set in Toronto with a Muslim veteran police detective, Esa Khattak, and his partner, Detective Rachel Getty. As head of Toronto’s Community Policing Section, Khattack’s team handles sensitive minority cases all the time. They are tasked with investigating the death of Christopher Drayton, a successful businessman who has fallen off a cliff near his home.
What first appears to be a straightforward accident of a fall from the cliffs overlooking Lake Ontario in the dark turns out to be so much more. Khattak soon comes to believe that Drayton was really Drazen Krstic, a war criminal responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Muslims during what has come to be known as the Srebrenica Massacre. Then it comes to light that Drayton has been receiving letters that contain quotations from war survivor’s testimony. Could his death be a revenge killing by relatives of survivors who’ve settled in Canada?
The case has personal ramifications for Khattak, and with Getty carrying her own secrets, the duo are learning to trust each other. Yet even as they build respect and trust in each other, they are learning from each other about the different cultures they represent. As their investigation continues, it will bring them more questions than answers that center on the conclave where Drayton lived and the small neighborhood there. Drayton was due to be married shortly, and his fiancee and her two daughters are several of the interesting characters Khan has created. There is also the question of a large donation he was to give to a museum in the same area and his participation in it.
Khan alternates the investigation against the background of the war, with several survivors stories representative of the horrific experiences of many. Without harping on political issues but with the travesty of war atrocities the focus, the novel stays firmly in the realm of a police investigation, with well-drawn characters, as the threads of the past and the present become woven into a chilling climax.
It is revealed after reading the novel, and there is not really a spoiler alert needed here, that the letters Drayton received contain lines from actual testimony from war crimes trials. In a lengthy and well-documented addendum, the author explains the origins of the quotes, showing the horror of ethnic cleansing that occurred at the time when a culture and its followers were attempted to be rubbed off the face of the earth.
This is an outstanding debut, meticulous in its research, compelling in its characters, and Auntie M can only hope this is not the last we’ve seen of this detective duo. Highly recommended.