Ausma Zehanat Khan followed up her debut novel THE UNQUIET DEAD with another thought provoking exploration of the complexities of modern policing in THE LANGUAGE OF SECRETS.
The two main characters are again Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty from Toronto’s Community Policing Section. The team, and its leader Esa Khattak in particular, is under investigation due to the events depicted in the first book but they are still called upon for cases where the sensitivities of minority groups are at risk of being trampled upon. Here Mohsin Dar, a Muslim man, has been killed and his father, a loudmouth radio host, is threatening to cause the kind of publicity the police don’t want right now. For security reasons the family cannot be told but Dar had infiltrated a terrorist cell and was supplying information to the Canadian federal intelligence agency about an imminent attack. Intercepting the terrorists before they can carry out their plan is of paramount importance. Esa, who knew Moshin Dar personally, is asked to keep Moshin’s father from inadvertently bungling the time-sensitive operation. As if giving only the appearance of a murder investigation is not hard enough Esa’s job is made more difficult because the man in charge of the operation to stop the terrorist action is a personal enemy and keeps vital information from Esa and Rachel. As a contemplation on modern workplace politics the book is worryingly accurate.
Moshin’s way into the terrorist group had been via a local mosque from which a charismatic man has recruited members. While Esa tackles Moshin’s father and tries to begin a real investigation into the murder, Rachel is sent to the mosque as a potential convert to Islam with the aim of befriending the mostly young people who Moshin Dar had identified as probably being involved with the cell. I thought the rest of the book outstanding but unless Canada has a vastly different Health & Safety framework than any jurisdiction I’ve ever had anything to do with this element did not ring at all true for me. A cell leader of the type depicted here would only grow hyper vigilant to new faces if he is as close to carrying out an attack as police believe but Rachel just appears at the mosque without a shred of a cover story and behaves as suspiciously as humanly possible. In the read world I don’t think she’d have lasted five minutes and I can’t imagine any employer letting this happen.
But the rest of the book is remarkable so I was able to forgive this plot contrivance. One of the best things about it is its depiction of something other than the amorphous “Muslim Community” that is portrayed in much modern media. I am so sick of reading statements in which all members of any group say or do one single thing in response to every event. Here there are a range of Muslim characters who all think and behave independently and many are shown grappling with the same kind of life hassles as the rest of us. Unrequited love, family fights and heartaches, fitting in to a new social group. Extremism in the form of terrorism is shown but only in the wider context. I won’t pretend to be an expert on what it’s like to live as a Muslim in a world in which many equate the religion with terrorism, but my family background is Irish Catholic and I grew up with the stories of my relatives being labelled (and fired and in at least two cases imprisoned) as IRA terrorists on the flimsiest possible evidence. Khan has done a great job of showing just what a burden this kind of ‘guilt by (very) weak association’ can be for whole communities, not only those who are labelled.
But let me assure you the book is not all about terrorism. There’s lots of love and poetry too. Especially poetry. Esa, Moshin and the terrorist leader all use poetry to communicate within the story and Khan has, I think, included the extracts and conversations which surround them as a way to inform readers about aspects of Islamic history without making it feel like a religion 101 lecture. It’s beautifully done.
I realise I’ve rambled on a lot and haven’t said all I could about the book but I suspect that you’re either hooked by now or you’re not. If you are I would urge you to give the book a go as soon as you can (though I do think it would be a better reading experience if you’d read THE UNQUIET DEAD first). And if you’re not hooked I hope you stumble across a copy abandoned in a hotel room or something and are prompted by the absence of anything else to read to give it a go.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Minotaur, 2016
Length 329 pages
Book Series #2 in the Esa Khattak series
Source of review copy Borrowed from library