“The Unquiet Dead” by Ausma Zehanat Khan (Minotaur Books, 352 pages, $25.99)
War atrocities reverberate for generations, affecting those who fought on the battlefield and the civilian victims who were collateral damage.
Ausma Zehanat Khan’s gripping first novel tackles questions of identity, culture, revenge and war horrors in a strong police procedural.
Using the massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 during the Bosnian war as a backstory, Khan is careful not to overwhelm “The Unquiet Dead” with issues or politics. Instead, Khan’s novel gains its power from its characters and their motivations.
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Esa Khattak, head of Toronto’s Community Policing Section, and Rachel Getty, his sergeant, are asked to look into the death of local businessman Christopher Drayton, who fell from a cliff near his home. The death appears to be a straightforward accident – those cliffs that overlook Lake Ontario can be treacherous, especially in the dark. There doesn’t appear to be a reason for Khattak and his team, who handle minority sensitive cases, to be involved.
But Khattak soon learns that Drayton was an alias for Drazen Krstic, a war criminal who was involved in the slaughter of thousands of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica during the Bosnian war. Was Krstic’s death revenge from the relatives of those massacred who have settled in Canada?
The case has a personal meaning for Khattak, a second-generation Canadian Muslim who carries his own scars from the war. The dead do not rest quietly, as Khan illustrates, but lie in the hearts and minds of survivors, who always live in the shadow of the war, seeking retribution.
Khan illustrates her powerful storytelling through her well-sculpted characters. The team of Khattak and Getty is one of respect and learning, with each teaching the other about police work and Toronto’s various cultures. Although well-regarded by many in Toronto, Krstic’s dark side had not become smaller, he just kept it quiet – “The war had not exhausted his menace.”
Khan intersperses testimony from war crime trials to show the horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and includes author and source notes following the novel’s denouement to further show the atrocities.
An intelligent plot and graceful writing make “The Unquiet Dead” an outstanding debut that is not easily forgotten.