REVIEW: The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan (Getty & Khattak #1)

Series: Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak

Book Number: 1

Read this book for: war crimes, brutality, fantastic writing, compelling story, Bosnian conflict, Canadian setting

Quick Review: Stunning, both for its beautiful writing and for the visceral brutality and terror of its subject matter, THE UNQUIET DEAD reads more like fine literature than standard crime novel. This book is an experience, not just a novel, and deserves a close reading.

***

Despite their many differences, Detective Rachel Getty trusts her boss, Esa Khattak, implicitly. But she’s still uneasy at Khattak’s tight-lipped secrecy when he asks her to look into Christopher Drayton’s death. Drayton’s apparently accidental fall from a cliff doesn’t seem to warrant a police investigation, particularly not from Rachel and Khattak’s team, which handles minority-sensitive cases. But when she learns that Drayton may have been living under an assumed name, Rachel begins to understand why Khattak is tip-toeing around this case. It soon comes to light that Drayton may have been a war criminal with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995.

If that’s true, any number of people might have had reason to help Drayton to his death, and a murder investigation could have far-reaching ripples throughout the community. But as Rachel and Khattak dig deeper into the life and death of Christopher Drayton, every question seems to lead only to more questions, with no easy answers. Had the specters of Srebrenica returned to haunt Drayton at the end, or had he been keeping secrets of an entirely different nature? Or, after all, did a man just fall to his death from the Bluffs?

THE UNQUIET DEAD is a beautiful and haunting novel by Ausma Zehanat Khan, the first novel in a series that promises to be gripping, subtle and sensitive, featuring the Esa Khattak, the Director of the Community Policing Services focused on handling sensitive cases in Canada, based in the Greater Toronto Area, and his blunt but caring and intuitive partner, Rachel Getty. Canada is such a rare setting, I’m excited to see it used in this series, particularly to highlight themes around multiculturalism.

While this novel starts out a little slowly, and you may wonder why writing that is almost lyrical in nature is present in what is ostensibly crime fiction, it quickly becomes apparent that Khan is a master of language. Her technique is breathtaking, with the way she juxtaposes a relatively small and slowly paced-investigation with the heart-stopping terror of scenes of genocide and other atrocities, and a slow burn that draws itself over chapter after chapter and intensifies the tension far longer than you would imagine it could be held. Khan writes this complex, multi-layered plot that keeps you guessing all the way to the end with a secretive subtlety, giving nothing away and lulling you with beautiful prose between shocks of horror.

Part of the complexity inherent in this novel comes from the characters. In a book about a hidden identity, the layers and the secret lives of the characters keep you hooked – from wondering who the main actors really are to the fact that you have almost no idea who is involved in the flashbacks to the conflicts – or what ultimately their fates were. There are so many questions for such a deceptively simple investigation, and the characters create the biggest questions of all.

Tying together all the elements of this novel and intensifying the haunting nature of the subject matter is the obvious deep research that Khan has done into the atrocities that occurred in Bosnia. The quotes from trial transcripts, victim statements and other sources, really serve to bring the horror to life in a way that fiction alone never could, and lend an additional level of authenticity and emotional intensity to the novel.

THE UNQUIET DEAD is an arresting piece of fiction that absolutely must be read. Go out and pick up a copy and prepare yourself for an experience that will move you.

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