In The Unquiet Dead, Esa Khattak has been given the task of heading up Toronto’s CPS — Community Policing Section. He and his partner, Rachel Getty, work specifically with minority-sensitive cases, so they’re used to the complications that culture, religion, and history bring to a multicultural crime. This time, the crime seems like something that wouldn’t normally land on their plate — a man, Christopher Drayton, has fallen to his death off Scarborough Bluffs, and there’s no immediate reason to suggest foul play. But the Canadian Department of Justice has been receiving anonymous letters suggesting that Drayton is a notorious Bosnian war criminal. If it’s true, thousands of people could have a motive for wanting him dead. And Esa Khattak, who worked in humanitarian relief for Bosnia, is emotionally involved in the case in a way Rachel has never seen before. How can they find out the truth, when the witnesses have nearly all been murdered twenty years before?
Ausma Zehanat Khan’s debut novel deals with issues that are much larger than the scope of most mystery novels. Here we have the aftermath of genocide and all that entails; the notion of Bosnia as a second Andalusia, with its ideals of real pluralism, and its downfall when ultra-nationalism took over; the complicity of the UN in the Bosnian war; the slow recovery of Bosnian communities and the memorialization of their dead. Woven into these historical, cultural, and philosophical ideas is a story of justice and revenge against one human being. What does that mean in the greater balance?
The main characters, Esa and Rachel, are a bit hard to get to know with all the philosophy swirling around. Esa is dealing with a broken friendship, and Rachel has a difficult family of origin, so they’re both fighting more than the trials of a murder investigation. Khan asserts that the partners communicate well and respect each other, but she doesn’t show us the easy dialogue or banter we need to feel sure of that, and they’re both rather reserved people. It’s implied that they have already been through some devastating policing experiences that have brought them together, but these experiences are never described in detail. (I wonder if they wound up on the editing floor?) We just have to believe that it happened, rather than watch the relationship develop.
The other thing that niggled at me is that conventionally attractive women aren’t trustworthy in this book. Basically, if you’re sexy, that means you’re dumb and/or calculating and/or a selfish, unpleasant person. And why are the police even evaluating whether someone is “attractive”? Mmmm. Let’s not.
That aside, however, by the end of the book, I was fully engaged. This may not have been a perfect book, but it was well-written and interesting, and by dealing with some of the horrors of the Bosnian conflict, it brought some complex ideas to light. The notion that the ghosts of the missing and the dead could provoke a murder? The idea that ultra-nationalist hatred could drive a killing even twenty years later? Not so far-fetched, I think. Definitely an enjoyable mystery read.