Review: THE UNQUIET DEAD by Ausma Zehanat Khan

TheUnquietDeadAusmaZehan23526_fAs someone who makes extensive use of her local library’s holds system I’m often in the situation of embarking on a book about which I know nothing. If it’s not by an author I already know, I’ve generally put the book on hold thanks to a review by someone I trust (in this case the excellent Euro Crime) but because it can take months for the book to become available (in this case four) I’ve usually forgotten what prompted me to place the hold by the time I get that delightful message telling me there’s (another) book for me to collect. And I don’t read blurbs anymore. Which is how it came to be that I sat down last Sunday morning to dip my toes into a few pages of THE UNQUIET DEAD before attacking my household chores and was so immediately enthralled that I forgot to stop reading until the very end.

Esa Khattak is in charge of a new Toronto-based unit called the Community Policing Section or CPS. Its purpose is somewhat vague although it was established after a bungled terrorism case that has cost the federal government millions in compensation because they targeted an innocent man. The choice of Khattak, a second-generation Canadian Muslim with experience in both homicide investigation and counter-intelligence work, is deliberate. As this book opens he is asked by an old friend to look into the recent death of a man called Christopher Drayton. At first glance the apparent accidental death via a clifftop fall wouldn’t seem to require the particular skills of the CPS but a friend of Khattak’s at the Department of Justice is worried that Drayton might not have been who he claimed to be. He might just have been one of the nastiest war criminals of the horrendous three-year long campaign of death and destruction that culminated in Srebrenicia massacre of 1995.

The characters are a strength of this novel. Khattak is assisted in his investigations by Rachel Getty. She is younger and less experienced than Khattak and there is some trouble in her working past but Khattak deliberately sought her out for his unit. The pair are compelling as an investigative team and as individual characters. The investigation requires Khattak to reconnect with a childhood friend – a well-known writer – with whom he has fallen out. And Rachel has her own worries stemming from her family life that includes an abusive father and a missing sibling. But they work through these personal difficulties. Or around them if necessary. To get to the truth. The case introduces Esa and Rachel to a small group of Drayton’s friends and acquaintances, some of whom have secrets as devastating in their way as Drayton’s own. Everyone is someone that needs close observation and it is a pleasure to see the way their hidden layers are revealed.

Although fiction, the book clearly draws heavily on its author’s expertise as a specialist in the legal aspects of military intervention for human protection purposes and war crimes in the Balkans to tell its hauntingly sad story. There are a number of tools used to give the reader the sense that this is not a superficial ‘gosh isn’t war awful‘ sort of treatment but the kind of fictional story that is almost more realistic than fact. I am not normally a huge fan of chapter epigraphs but here they are used to great effect with many being extracts from primary sources related to the conflict such as letters from survivors or witness statements from various International Criminal Tribunal proceedings. They definitely help define the novel’s atmosphere. And although the bulk of the story takes place in present-day Canada there are devastating flashbacks to several people’s experiences during the war. These are harrowing. Truly harrowing. It is difficult at times to keep reading. Knowing that real events very like these made up ones – mass killings on an unfathomable scale, the use of rape as a weapon – took place during my own adult life. And even when we learned it was going on the world let it happen. Again.

The book isn’t perfect. The character of Drayton’s girlfriend felt out of place to me. She’s brassy and grasping and an almost comically appalling parent and her obviousness doesn’t fit with the rest of the deftly drawn characters. I’m not sure either that the thread involving the relationship between her two daughters and Drayton actually adds much to the story. Again it’s out of step and feels a bit like its been added to give the story a more mainstream appeal than perhaps a book dealing with such disturbing history might have. But in the scheme of things these are minor critiques.

I don’t know that I could recommend THE UNQUIET DEAD if you have first-hand knowledge of a scenario like the ones it depicts: only you would know if you could deal with revisiting such a thing. But if, like me, you are fortunate enough to have only learned about such things via news reports then I think it should be required reading. Though I’ve lost my naive belief that if we humans share such stories widely enough we won’t repeat the same atrocities in another time and place, surely the very least we owe the victims of such senselessness is to remember them. And, using the drama and emotion that allows fiction to go where fact often cannot, Khan has provided a fitting tribute to the senselessly lost souls of the tragedy that was the Bosnian war. On top of that, it’s a bloody good yarn.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Minotaur Books [2014]
ISBN 9781250055118
Length 320 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series #1 in the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series

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4 Responses to Review: THE UNQUIET DEAD by Ausma Zehanat Khan

  1. This one sounds like a powerful read, Bernadette. I think you make a well-taken point that we need to remember those who suffered so much during this conflict. As you say, it may not prevent future horrors like this one, but I think allowing it to be forgotten would be far worse. And it sounds like the present-day case is really interesting too. It’s not easy to tie both together successfully. It’s even harder to tell this sort of story well, so I’m glad you thought that Khan did it well.

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  2. Kay says:

    Well, I am totally drawn in by your thoughts on this book. I think I was aware of it some time back and meant to learn more. Off right now to see if my library has a copy. I bet they do. And thanks.

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  3. This sounds fascinating, Bernadette. In a strange way, I feel more able engage with historical atrocities via fiction than I do reading history, or even the news. Val McDermid’s Skeleton Road pricked my interest in reading more (fiction) about the Bosnian War. The Unquiet Dead – and what a great title – sounds like the ideal follow up.

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    • I tend to prefer to fictional accounts of these types of historical situations too Angela…so thanks for the tip about Skeleton Road covering some of the same subject as I am definitely eager to read more…not sure I’ll ever understand no matter how much I read but it is a subject that I want to know more about

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