Mystery novels have always explored the depths of the human psyche. But when a talented writer explores elements of the human condition to its complete zenith, the book can be a enlightening and engaging read. And that what Ausma Zehanat Khan has done with The Unquiet Dead.
The Maghrib prayer was for (Esa) Khattak a time of consolation where along with prayers for Muhammad, he asked for mercy upon his wife and forgiveness for the accident that had caused her death. A nightly ritual of grief relieved by the possibility of hope, it stretched across that most resonant band of time: twilight. The dying sun muted his thoughts, much as it subdued the colors of the ja-namaz beneath him. It was the discipline of the ritual that brought him comfort, the reason he rarely missed it. Unless he was on duty – as he was tonight, when the phone call from Tom Paley disturbed his concentration.
He no longer possessed the hot-blooded certainties of youth that a prayer missed or delayed would bring about a concomitant judgment of sin. Time had taught him to view his faith through the prism of compassion: when ritual was sacrificed in pursuit of the very values of compassion: when ritual was sacrificed in pursuit of the very values it was meant to inspire, there could be no judgement, no sin.
He took the phone call from Tom Paley midway through the prayer and finished up in its aftermath. Tom, the most respected historian at Canada’s Department of Justice, would not have disturbed him on an evening when Khattak could just as easily have been off-roster unless the situation was urgent.
Detective Rachel Getty and her superior Esa Khattak have a uneasy work relationship as they begin to investigate the mysterious death of Christopher Drayton. She follows his leadership without question but feels strongly uneasy as she soon realizes there are details to the case he is holding back from her. As the investigation continues and emotions of all become tense as it becomes suggested that Drayton may have been involved with the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims during the Balkans War, both Getty and Khattak must try to wade through a quagmire of personalities to find out the truth of what happened to Drayton and why.
For more than a week now, Rachel had been asked to do nothing further on the Drayton investigation. She’d resumed her regular workload with Dec and Gaffney, sating little about the previous week’s excursions, wondering when Khattak would show up at their downtown office again.. She had a few ideas about what they should do next and found Khattak’s silence troubling. Had he ruled out the idea that Drayton was Dražen Krstić? If so, based on what evidence? Or had he found something that cemented his certainties? Was he even now reporting to his friend at Justice? He’d told her to keep the letters, and she’d spent her evening digging into the history of the Bosnian war, trying to find out more about Krstić.
Initially, she’d thought that the letters spoke from the perspective of a survivor of the war with a very specific axe to grind, but Khattak had been right. The letters weren’t just about the massacre at Srebrenica. They were far more wide-ranging, as if the letter writer was making a darker point, outlined in blood.
At its deepest level, this is a book about identity. The characters have to deal with the labels their identities bring with them, be it with: family, occupations, gender, religion and even social status. But at most Khan brings the ugliness of identity politics to us in the comfortable west. The war that rip lives apart in the former Yugoslavia still hurts to this day. Khan brings that element boldly alive in not only having survivors retell their stories but also bluntly questioning the roles our leaders played during the massacres.
The little girl kicked the ball straight at the imam. He caught it with a deft movement and tossed it back to her, his face grave.
“It would give many people peace to know that Krstić is dead.”
“For that peace to be real, they would need to know that Drayton really was Krstić. All I’m asking you for is a little more time. I’m heading to the Department of Justice this afternoon. I should be able to tell you much more once I’ve had that meeting.
Imam Muharrem studied him.
“So you will be the truth-bearer, Inspector Esa. You will tell you masters what they do not wish to hear, insist to them on the truth of what you’ve learned. And they will say to you, Inspector, ‘How can you trust the memory of these Bonians? A people too weak to save themselves. We owe them nothing. Let us preserve our silence.”
“Imam Muharrem -”
“Can you deny it? Was Srebrenica not the worst hour of so many Western governments?”
“The Canadian battalion wasn’t in Srebrenica in 1995 , sir. And while they were there, they lived on combat rations as an act of solidarity with your people.” Rachel had done her research but she didn’t know what made her say this; perhaps a flicker of deep-seated shame.
The imam took her up on it. “The Canadian battalion was evacuated at the insistence of your government. Unlike my people, who could not be evacuated and were left behind to be murdered. I’m afraid a ration of two beers a day is not my definition of solidarity, Sergeant. We experienced the same pressures as your commander in Srebrenica, but we did not share his relief from it.” He shook his head. “Canbat or Dutchbat, it would have made no difference. The outcome would have been the same. What does it matter to the mothers of Srebrenica if entire governments resign? Will that bring back the dead?”
“You do what you must, Inspector. I will do the same.” He saw their expressions and added. “I do not mean that as a threat. I will wait to see what your government does. I think this will make you unpopular, Inspector Esa. If you expose your government, you may not reach the heights you were otherwise destined for. Your Community Policing may fail before it has a chance to begin.”
Khattak slid hands into his trouser pockets, the gesture unforced. “Please let me worry about that, Imam Muharrem. We cannot possibly fail you twice.”
The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan is much more that mystery novel. It looks deep into the role of identity in society and causes readers to ponder that element of the human condition in earnest. Exactly what a good piece of literature should do.