Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Like all wars, the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina left deep and lasting scars. More than twenty years later, it still does. Let’s take a look today at the repercussions of that war. Let’s turn the spotlight on Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, the first of her novels featuring Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government.
One day, Khattak gets a call from Tom Paley, of Canada’s Department of Justice. A man named Christopher Drayton has died after a fall from Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs. On the surface, there seems to be no reason for which the CPS should be involved in this case. That group is more concerned with anti-bigotry and community relations issues. Then, Khattak learns the reason this case is so delicate and needs the CPS’ attention.
It is possible that Christopher Drayton may actually have been Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal known as the butcher of Srebrenica. If that’s the case, then there will be real trouble for the government. Why was a war criminal allowed in the country? Why was he never prosecuted? Khattak himself can’t be entirely objective; as a student, he volunteered in Bosnia, and knows first-hand what happened there. What’s more, he is a Muslim. So he brings his assistant, Sergeant Rachel Getty, in on the case, telling her very little about it at first. The idea is that she’ll bring a fresh pair of eyes, as the saying goes, and can be more objective.
Part of the team’s task is to establish who Drayton really was. The other part is to determine the truth about Drayton’s death. There is some evidence the victim may have been Krstić, so one lead is the local Bosnian mosque. Someone there might have remembered him from the war, and decided to mete out personal justice.
There’s also the victim’s personal life. He was engaged to marry Melanie Blessant, and the plan was that she and her two daughters, Hadley and Cassidy, would move in with him after the wedding. She claims that she had no motive, and that she was eager for the wedding. But I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Melanie Blessant is malicious, greedy, and thoroughly dysfunctional. How much can anyone rely on what she says? Her ex-husband Dennis is also a possibility. He argued with Drayton about who would have custody of Hadley and Cassidy, insisting that they should live with him. He claims that Drayton was worth much more to him alive than dead, since it would mean an end to Melanie’s endless demands for money. But he could certainly be lying.
And then there’s the Andalusia Museum, a project designed to celebrate the art, music and culture of Moorish Andalusia. Drayton had taken an interest in the project, and in fact, wanted to be named to its board of directors. Not everyone was happy about that, though, and that could also be a motive for murder. Little by little, Khattak and Getty peel away a layer of lies and uncover some very dark secrets. Some are related to the Bosnian War; some are personal.
The events of the Bosnian War play an important role in this novel, and we learn the stories of several people caught in it. Khan has also added several notes to the end of the book, that give further information. The war stories are harrowing, and they are not ‘sugarcoated’ here. Just as harrowing – perhaps more so – is the callous, almost casual, attitude towards the violence on the part of some of the perpetrators and enablers involved. Readers who find such stories disturbing will notice this.
The story also raises some important moral/ethical questions. If the victim was Krstić, and his murder was committed by a former victim (or victim’s family member), is it right to prosecute someone who’s already suffered so much? On the other hand, is ‘vigilante justice’ ever appropriate? And what about the police? Are there times when certain cases should be ‘buried,’ in the interest of the peace and healing of everyone?
This book does not provide easy answers to those questions. What’s more, it doesn’t have a traditional ending, where the killer is led away in handcuffs. Readers who prefer that sort of ending will notice this.
There are several sub-plots to the novel, and they form another element. One has to do with Getty. She lives with her extremely dysfunctional parents, mostly because she wants to ‘mend fences’ with her brother Zachary ‘Zach,’ who left home several years earlier. She’s been trying to find him, and hopes he’ll return. Her search for Zach and its consequences is one story thread. Another has to do with Khattak and Nathan ‘Nate’ Clare, a writer who lived near Drayton and who knew him. Without spoiling the story, I can say that they have a history which is revealed to the reader as Getty discovers it.
There’s also the relationship between Khattak and Getty (and no, for those who may be concerned about this, it’s not romantic). Each has personal ‘baggage’ and prefers to keep that ‘baggage’ private. They are both imperfect people, too, who’ve made their share of mistakes. But Getty admires Khattak and wants his approval. For his part, Khattak relies on Getty and knows that she can be trusted to tell the truth as she understands it. And she isn’t afraid to sometimes say things he might not want to hear. They respect each other, and learn to trust each other.
The Unquiet Dead is the story of one death. But it’s also the story of thousands of other deaths, and the stories of the many people who survived the war, but who will never be the same because of it. It is not an easy read, and raises difficult moral and ethical questions. But it also introduces two sleuths who are willing to try to get some answers. But what’s your view? Have you read The Unquiet Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 15 February/Tuesday, 16 February – Bullet For a Star – Stuart Kaminsky
Monday, 22 February/Tuesday, 23 February – The Lying-Down Room – Anna Jaquiery
Monday, 29 February/Tuesday 1 March – The Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty