Khan’s debut The Unquiet Dead was one of Auntie M’s favorite debuts last year, introducing the unusual team of Toronto detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. Khan’s sequel, The Language of Secrets, is every bit as well done, a compelling and original plot with a timely topic handled with exquisite delicacy and precision. Instead of a formal review, Auntie M will let the author describe her book.
Auntie M had the pleasure of having lunch and a lively discussion about her work with British-born Canadian Ausma Zehanat Khan at Bouchercon last October. The author met her husband, a University of Denver professor and author who is regarded as a leading expert on Middle East affairs, when they were students at university in Ottowa, the country’s capital, and both became activists in protests against Bosnian war crimes. Her PhD research informed much of The Unquiet Dead, and her husband, Nader Hashemi, Director for the Center of Middle East Studies, became a patient and valuable resource in her research for this second book, which has her detectives investigating a Muslim terrorist cell planning an attack on New Year’s Day.
Auntie M: After all of your PhD research, why the decision to document stories and try to bring understanding through crime novels?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: I’m a lifelong crime fiction reader, which led to this series, and I chose the Canadian setting to write about my Toronto home from a distance. That distance allows me to recreate the setting for readers, who may not understand the very accepting multicultural attitudes prevalent in Toronto. So that was how I grounded my detectives. I wanted to write about the Bosnian genocide because I thought it was a war most people knew little about, and whose terrible crimes have been largely forgotten. I thought a mystery that explored the war would be a more accessible, but still compelling, entry point into that story, a story that has stayed with me as the struggle for justice continues.
AM: Your first book was based on real events; does this sequel follow that pattern?
AZK: Yes, “Secrets” is based on a case where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service carried out a major anti-terrorism operation that resulted in the arrest of eighteen jihadists, influenced by a charismatic ideologue, who had planned to attack several sites in downtown Toronoto, as well as discussing other targets. A Muslim police agent infiltrated the terror cell’s operation and together with a second informant, helped bring about a successful sting operation that led to arrests before the plot could be carried out. My Author’s Note at the end of the book gives the full story.
AM: You do a great job of explaining how everyone feels accepted in Toronto.
AZK: Of course, I don’t want to idealize my city because I know no matter how multicultural, there are always probles within and between different groups that must be grappled with. And there can be issues of systemic discrimination, as with the over-policing of Toronto’s black communities. But I will say that Toronto is an inclusive, welcoming, multicultural city that a wide variety of groups not only call home but feel completely at home in, just as I do. Just recently, the mayor of Toronto and the Prime Minister of Canada personally welcomed Syrian refugees to the country. To me, that kind of open-hearted multiculturalism is ingrained in the idea of what Canada stands for. So it can be all the more shocking to realize there are still those who feel disenfranchised, alienated–who actively wish to do harm. I wanted to explore how, given that context, young men become radicalized to the point of disastrous action.
AM: So you decided to have Rachel Getty, the native Canadian, go undercover into a mosque! This one is filled with intrigue and Esa’s struggles with his family, while Rachel is tasting independence and a major change in her own family.
AZK: Rachel has to play a sensitive role and do it well. Esa has been told he cannot be seen to be investigating the murder of an old friend, an undercover Muslim agent, from this mosque, for fear of getting in the way of the sting operation underway. He’s hamstrung by his own colleagues and decides sending Rachel undercover may be the best way to infiltrate the cell and investigate the murder.
AM: Rachel has her work cut out for her, becoming involved in the mosque and learning the different personalities of those attending, trying to separate out the members from the terrorist cell while appearing just an interested new party.
AZK: There’s a lot at stake and it becomes personal to them when Esa’s sister becomes engaged, against his wishes, to a member of the mosque, the leader of the cell. I tried to show that passion and zeal take many forms in religion, and people turn to the comfort of belonging to a group for various, personal reasons. As she subtly investigated the congregants, Rachel is the one who arrives at these conclusions.
AM: I won’t give the ending away except to say that both Esa and Rachel come across as fully realized characters who can sustain a series. Esa is the thinker, the more reserved Muslim who is comfortable with his faith in a modern world; Rachel is the younger, hockey-playing partner trying to learn from him while they each learn to trust the other. You said you’ve always loved crime fiction. Who were your early influences?
AZK: When I was 13, my father gave me a leather-bound set of Sherlock Holmes stories and I was hooked by the master, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I also greatly enjoyed Ngaio Marsh, and later Reginald Hill became one of my favorites. His Dialogues of the Dead is what I consider a perfect crime novel.
AM: I agree. It’s one of my own favorites, too. So for reading today, who’s books would I find on your nightstand?
AZK: I enjoy series, and like Louise Penny, Charles Finch, Alan Bradley, Charles Todd, and Tasha Alexander off the top of my head. Ashley Weaver is a terrific new find. Also Martha Grimes and Elizabeth George. Morag Joss has a way with a lovely turn of phrase, and I enjoy Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler series and the dilemmas of his family very much.
AM: All good choices and some of my own are amongst those. Good luck with this new book.
Auntie M will end here except to add that The Unquiet Dead is now available in paperback. The Language of Secrets, which Kirkus Reviews describes as a “smart, measured, immersive dive into a poorly understood, terrifyingly relevant subculture of violent extremism,” debuts Feb. 2nd and earns Auntie M’s “highly recommended” rating.