I stumbled upon this novel while popping into a random bookshop. I often head to mystery first – where I was struck by the dramatic cover. The story unfolds through the eyes of Rachel Getty, a 20-something Canadian police officer, and her boss Esa Khattak, a practicing Muslim who heads up the newly formed Community Policing Section, which handles investigations of an especially sensitive cultural nature.
That’s how they’re roped into the prior life of Christopher Drayton, a man who fell to his deaths from the bluffs behind his house – but who may have been a Bosnian war criminal living under an assumed identity.
Drawing inspiration from some classic Agatha Christie works, the mystery in The Unquiet Dead is intriguing, although it’s not the meat of the story. Far, far more engaging is loyal (and sometimes tenious) relationship between Khattak and Getty. A calm, measured presence, Khattak is exactly the sort of character you would want investigating when something goes wrong.
His characterization reminded me a bit of another literary Canadian detective, Inspector Armand Gamache from Louise Penny’s novels. Where Penny’s mysteries are self-contained and more of the cozy variety, however, Khan’s The Unquiet Dead anchors itself in real-life horrors.
The backdrop for the mystery turns out to be the Bosnian Genocide, particularly the massacre at Srebrenica. These are the stories that really get the pages turning, and Khan realizes their power: she includes real quotes from victim accounts bookending each chapter, and dedicates several chapters to describing the horrors that some of the characters endured throughout the genocide.
What’s especially jarring about the accounts is the horrific realization of how recently these atrocities took place. I remember hearing about the Bosnian War when I was younger (although, like the character of Rachel Getty, I was about eight when the Srebrenica Massacre took place). The Unquiet Dead grapples with questions about global responsibility and justice – without ever offering any pat answers or delivering lectures.
Ausma Zehanat Khan boasts a Ph.D in International Human Rights law and a background in academia that no doubt helps to inform her unique (and especially global) perspective. She has some sequels in the works which will continue to feature this crime-fighting duo (and hopefully their friend Nate). I’m already excited to continue delving into this world.