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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review of "The Unquiet Dead" by Ausma Zehanat Khan

3.5 Stars
Esa Khattak is a Canadian Muslin in charge of CPS, a branch of policing which handles minority-sensitive cases.  He and his partner, Rachel Getty, are asked to investigate the death of Christopher Drayton.  Two mysteries end up being the focus of their investigation:  was Drayton really Dražen Krstić, a war criminal implicated in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, and was his fall an accident?

The characterization of the detective team is great. The two are foils:  Khattak is “urbane, soft-spoken, respectful, decisive” and epitomizes “the female holy grail of tall, dark, and handsome,” dressing in “sleek splendor” whereas Rachel is “direct and to the point” and “boxy, square-shouldered, round-cheeked, indifferently dressed.”  The two have a good relationship and work well together.  As is often the case with male/female detective pairs, there seems to be an unspoken attraction. 

Both Khattak and Rachel have personal problems.  Rachel’s dysfunctional family (abusive father, distant mother, estranged brother) gets considerable attention.  Less is known about Khattak’s backstory except that his wife died and he seeks “forgiveness for the accident that had caused her death.” 

The characterization that is poor is that of the other women in the novel.  All seem to be manipulative, even Rachel’s mother.  Then there are the shallow stereotypes:  Drayton’s fiancée is a hyper-sexualized gold digger; Khattak’s former girlfriend is likewise promiscuous; even the curator of the museum in which Drayton was interested is predatory.  All of the women are also beautiful, thereby inciting Rachel’s envy. 

One aspect I found annoying is Khattak’s keeping information from his partner.  This approach is obviously intended to create suspense:  what is really going on?  The reader, like Rachel, is left in the dark.  Khattak’s behaviour is explained by comments such as “[Rachel] knew he’d tell her everything she needed to know eventually” and “He was often reticent at the beginning of an investigation” and his justification that “’I’d like to see what conclusions you draw without the weight of prior knowledge.’”  Nonetheless his evasiveness is too obviously a dramatic ploy and unrealistic.

Throughout the book are interspersed are statements about the Bosnian War, including eyewitness testimonies before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.  All of these quotations are explained at the end in extensive notes, but the lack of initial explanation is confusing.  The reader wonders whether these are flashbacks to the past of some of the characters or whether the statements of people outside the narrative.  They certainly emphasize the horror of what happened but more clarity at the beginning would have been helpful.

This is the first of the author’s mysteries and, as indicated, it is not without its flaws.  However, it is a strong police procedural and its information about the Bosnian War has already had me doing further research.  And I've decided to read the next book in the series.  I’m interested to learn more about Khattak and Rachel and to see how their relationship develops.  Look for my review of the second book, The Language of Secrets, later in the week.

Note:  In the February 2, 2016, issue of Maclean’s, there’s an interview with Ausma Zehanat Khan in which she speaks about her mysteries; you can access it at