In The Spotlight: Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead

SpotlightHello, All,

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


Filed under Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead

26 responses to “In The Spotlight: Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead

  1. I haven’t read it, but it’s been on the TBR for a long time since Carol at readinwritingandreisling reviewed it. I must say that it’s the idea of the harrowing war stories that keep putting me off, but I will get around to it one day…

    • I won’t gloss over it, FictionFan. There really is some difficult stuff in this novel. In my opinion (but everyone’s mileage varies on this, as the saying goes), it’s not gratuitous, and it certainly doesn’t occupy every chapter of the book. But it’s there, no doubt. If you do read it, I hope you’ll be glad that you did.

  2. This sounds so good but also difficult to read. I will have to think about it. Thanks for spotlighting it.

    • It isn’t an easy read, Tracy, I’ll admit it. It’s a clear depiction of the impact of the Bosnian tragedy, and that was, of course, horrible. But it depicts a really interesting couple of sleuths, too, and a solid mystery. I hope that if you read it, you’ll be glad you did.

  3. I loved this book Margot – yes there are some confronting issues – but they need to be aired. I am a better person for reading this book. Any book that makes you think is valuable and then there is the crime fiction aspect…very good reading.

    • You put that so well, Carol! It is a difficult book, but as you say, these are issues that need to be brought up. They need to be aired. And it does give one so much to think about, doesn’t it?

  4. Col

    Oh, I’ve not heard of the author or this book, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. Onto the list it goes. I’m interested in the conflict and have a few books about it already. Hard to comprehend the barbarity of this particular War.

    • It is hard to get one’s mind round it, Col. And in my opinion, Khan acknowledges that in a powerful way without it being gratuitous. If you do get the chance to read this, I hpoe you’ll be glad you did.

  5. Another new to me author Margot but I’m interested – I am fond of books that raise questions that don’t have easy answers as I find these make me think. I’m also very fond of a good moral dilemma.

  6. This sounds great and so unusual too – thanks Margot, always such a pleasure to hear about these books I have never come across before!

  7. A new-to-me author and an intriguing new book to check out. Thanks, Margot.

  8. Hmm. I think you do a very good job of explaining what a good book this is, but right now I don’t think I can face it. Maybe for a future time when I’m feeling stronger.

  9. Kay

    I have had this book on my Kindle for a while, but have not read it yet. Your analysis makes me want to get to it soon. I was possibly considering it for our mystery book group, but sadly, our library only has 6 copies. We’re a group of about 16-18. Not everyone makes every meeting, but I need to find books that have enough copies available. And that is more and more difficult all the time. Anyway, I’m going to read this one and recommend it to my group. This is a debut book by this author, correct? Will there be another with these characters do you think?

    • You’re absolutely right, Kay, that this is a debut. And yes, there is more to the series. The second novel featuring Khattak and Getty is called The Language of Secrets. I do actually recommend it as a book club read, as there are a lot of good topics for conversation and debate. It’s not an easy book, as I’ve said, but there’s a lot there.

  10. It all sounds like a unique conflation of cultural issues, especially for U.S. readers. This suggests to me something about readers of crime/mystery fiction: perhaps many of us have a particular fondness for “otherness” in our reading interests. However, does it happen occasionally that writers take the conflation and use of “otherness” to an extreme so that readers can no longer identify with the characters; identification seems to be an essential factor? Of course, I could be quite wrong about all of this.

    • You have an interesting point, Tim. I certainly think it’s possible to focus so much on ‘other’ that one sacrifices the ability to identify with a character or situation. The key, in my opinion, is to start by telling a human story – a story people can identify with on that level. Then the rest can be added as the story line develops.

  11. mudpuddle

    your writing is extraordinarily clear-like looking into a mountain tarn. tx. i don’t like violence so won’t read the book, but i don’t have to, with the above precis. me only comment is, why are humans the way they are? sad that so much bad seemingly outweighs the good…

    • Thank you for the kind words, Mudpuddle. That means a lot to me. I can understand your choice not to read this if your preference is not to read violence. There are some harrowing references in the book. And about the way people treat others? Yes, it can be absolutely heartbreaking. That’s why any small act of good and kindness matters. And I’ve also been witness to some extraordinary good, too, which can be quite uplifting.

  12. I haven’t read it, but it sounds like a fascinating story.

    • It really is, Sue. Not at all easy to read – fair warning – but it tells about a part of history that not enough people know about, if I can put it that way. And among other things, it’s a fascinating look at how a terrible trauma can affect people even years later.

  13. Margot, the Bosnia element is what draws me to this novel. I followed the war in former Yugoslavia in the newspapers until its breakup. It was shocking to see the Western world as mute spectators to one of the worst human catastrophes of our times. Bosnia-Herzegovina suffered the most, I remember.

    • I think it did, too, Prashant. It was such a horrible, horrible war, and the scars will be there for a very, very long time. And I think Khan address that very effectively. She doesn’t gloss over it, but at the same time, I don’t think she handles it gratuitously.

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