Inspector Esa Khattak , a Canadian Muslim, is kneeling on a prayer rug woven by his Pakistani ancestors when his phone rings. He takes the call, finishes his prayers and sets off to investigate the suspicious death of a man who may be a fugitive war criminal.
“The Unquiet Dead,” Ausma Zehanat Khan’s impressive first novel, introduces us to Canada’s Community Policing Section, which handles the country’s minority-sensitive crimes. What was first considered an accidental death — a simple case of a man falling off a cliff — becomes a highly sensitive investigation when a war-crimes historian suspects that the victim, Christopher Drayton, is really Drazen Krstic, the driving force behind the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. That slaughter, Khan writes, is considered to be “Europe’s greatest atrocity since the Second World War.”
Inspector Khattak is a compelling character whose entry into the competitive crime novel genre is highly welcome. That Khattak is comfortable in his religion, but not defined by it, is refreshing. Other writers, across multiple entertainment outlets, are choosing to feed off a pop-culture fascination with Islamophobia, painting most Muslim characters as fanatical villains. Khattak, whom Khan describes as “urbane, soft-spoken, respectful, decisive,” is familiar with this thriving stereotype: “Take anything a Muslim touched, add the word jihad to it, and immediately you produced something ugly and divisive,” he thinks.
Khattak’s partner, Sgt. Rachel Getty, is nothing like her boss, except for her commitment to fairness and truth. In her late 20s, she’s 10 years younger than Khattak, who openly admires the rational thinking and attention to detail she brings to police work. She’s a “strong” and “square built” woman who enjoys playing hockey. Getty is defined by her love for Canada’s multiculturalism, her complicated family issues and her admiration for Khattak. She and Khattak each have personal problems. Even though they do not discuss these, the pair recognize each other as kindred spirits.
The calculated genocide of Bosnian Muslims, including the Srebrenica massacre, is territory on which a writer should tread carefully. Khan, who has a PhD in international human rights law and specializes in the history of war crimes in the Balkans, avoids the sensationalist and gratuitous traps into which a lesser writer could fall. She carefully and solemnly details Bosnia’s tragic history even as she describes the rape and torture camps, the mass executions of adults and children and the annihilation of culture and families by ultranationalists who wanted to wipe out the country’s non-Serb and non-Croat inhabitants. She enhances her storytelling with testimony from Human Rights Watch reports and witness statements made before tribunals as well as flashbacks highlighting the agony and suffering of the genocide’s victims.
Khan uses a slow build to roll out the clues concerning the novel’s possible murder. Khattak and Getty first must determine whether Drayton really is Krstic; if so, countless witnesses to the Bosnian genocide are potential suspects. Thousands of survivors have settled in Canada, and many worship not far from where Drayton met his death.
The clues to Drayton’s true identity seem irrefutable: a tattoo of a Serbian cross on his right hand — ubiquitous in paramilitary armies in Bosnia; letters sent to Drayton, their salutations and signatures torn off, which document the atrocities Krstic committed; lilies indigenous to Bosnia growing in Drayton’s garden; and a type of gun found in his home and known to be used by the deadly Drina Corps of the Bosnian Serb army.
The suspect pool quickly expands to include Drayton’s greedy fiancee, who may have been attracted to his money; her ex-husband, who may not have wanted Drayton to raise his daughters; and the curator of a museum to which Drayton has promised a small fortune.
And why, if Drayton is Krstic, did he pledge money to a museum that celebrates Muslim-ruled medieval Spain, a golden age that embraced Islam, Judaism and Christianity in the name of art and knowledge? “It would be antithetical to his sense of himself,” Getty observes. “To the ideology that fueled the Bosnian War.”
Throughout Getty and Khattak’s solid and comprehensive investigation, Khan’s talents are evident. This first in what may become a series is a many-faceted gem. It’s a sound police procedural, a somber study of loss and redemption and, most of all, a grim effort to make sure that crimes against humanity are not forgotten.
Memmott’s reviews have also appeared in USA Today and the Chicago Tribune.
THE UNQUIET DEAD
By Ausma Zehanat Khan
Minotaur. 344 pp. $25.99