The Unquiet Dead, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

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The Unquiet Dead

Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty are two Toronto police officers who have the unenviable job of working “sensitive” cases involving Canada’s immigrant community. Not only do they have to solve mysteries and see justice done, they have the added pressure of keeping a lid on things so that they don’t become a media nightmare for the government. The Unquiet Dead, by Ausma Zehanet Khan, is the first book in a planned series featuring the two characters. If the mystery at the center of this book is anything to judge by, Khattak and Getty deserve a raise. As The Unquiet Dead opens, it’s not clear that there is a crime to solve. A rich man appears to have died after an accidental fall. Khattak and Getty don’t know why they’ve been called in exactly, until evidence surfaces that the rich man might have been a Serbian war criminal.

Khattak is the senior officer and it’s clear he knows more about the case of Christopher Drayton than he lets on. When he brings in his partner, Getty, he deliberate keeps his suspicions to himself to avoid any hint of prejudice or rule-breaking. Eventually, Khattak reveals that a Canadian official who is an expert in war crimes has been sent letters informing him that Drayton is actually a former lieutenant colonel in the Serbian army and may have been one of the architects of the Srebrenica massacre and other atrocities. The more Khattak and Getty dig, the more problems they find: unexplained money, a repellant fiancée, threatening letters, and worse. In spite of a number of possible suspects who might have wanted to kill Drayton, the detectives can’t work out what happened the night he died. Nothing adds up.

As Khattak and Getty investigate, short interludes take us into the experiences of three different people who survived the Bosnian War. The brutal irony of the situation is that Drayton’s death is of more interest to law enforcement than the deaths of the survivors’ families and the crimes committed against the Bosnian people. Drayton should have been in The Hague facing war crimes long before this, not living as a rich man in the suburbs of Toronto. But then, that’s the the very issue The Unquiet Dead asks us to think about: how the international community should have responded to atrocities and war crimes during the war and how they actually responded. For the survivors—who resurface later in the novel as they must, like Chekhov’s gun—seeing Drayton’s dead investigated must have felt like the last straw.

I was much more interested in the ethics of the case than in the personal subplots in the book. While the subplots humanized the detectives, I like to wrestle with ethical complexity—especially when it deals with war crimes. When the main plot would take a break for a chapter about Getty and her troubled childhood or Khattak’s attraction to one of the suspects, all I wanted was more dialog about how the detectives would keep the news that Canada had harbored a wanted war criminal for years and done nothing about it.

The Unquiet Dead is a solid read, but I’m only a little curious what the rest of the series has in store for Khattak and Getty. (The next book will have to have a very interesting hook to get me to read it.) Also, by the end of the book, I liked Getty a lot more than Khattak. Perhaps its because we spend more time with Getty as she puzzles things out, but she had a lot of my sympathy while she worked and Khattak wandered around moodily. The Unquiet Dead was just not quite right for me as a reader, I think.

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