I have a confession to make… when I first saw a listing for this book, its title made me think it was a zombie novel. It is not.
In some ways The Unquiet Dead is the crime book I’ve read (so far) that most adheres to what I previously believed were the hallmarks of a police procedural novel – two, seemingly mismatched, detectives (who nonetheless complement each other’s personalities and crime-solving abilities) manage to track down the murderer and solve the crime. It has plenty of red-herrings, dead ends, clues to follow, and some fantastic characterisation – especially in Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak, the two detectives.
However, in all other ways, this book is nothing like I would expect a police-procedural to be. Its handling of its core subject matter – the Bosnian War and the atrocities perpetrated upon the Muslim population – makes this a crime novel which is very much concerned with a bigger picture. It’s not just the solving of the murder (if indeed it is a murder) that’s at stake, but so too is justice for the victims of Bosnian genocide, especially Srebrenica, one of most horrific massacres of the Bosnian War, at which more than 8000 Muslim men and boys were murdered by the Bosnia Serb Army of Republika Srpska.
Set in Toronto’s Scarborough suburb, the action begins with the death – an apparent fall from the famous Scarborough Bluffs – of local man Christopher Drayton. But, right from the beginning, all is certainly not as it seems as Esa Khattak, head of the Community Policing Section (which handles minority-sensitive cases) is asked to investigate this seemingly accidental death.
Khattak is a fascinating and complex character – he appears to be urbane and poised, but there are more than a few cracks in his façade. Rachel Getty, his partner, is a determined, guileless and thoroughly invested young detective who reminds me of an ice-hockey playing Clarice Starling.
This is the first instalment in a (soon-to-be) five book series featuring Khattak and Getty, being published in the US between 2015-2018 and in the UK by No Exit Press for the first time. One of the most refreshing things about this first in the series is that the characters Khattak and Getty have very compelling – both individual and shared – backstories that we are only given glimpses of. It gives real depth to the characters, and intrigues (but doesn’t belittle) the reader by only giving snippets of information: you want to know more about the characters’ pasts without being loaded with exposition. There is so much else I’d love to say about this incredible novel but, as always, my hands are tied by the issue of spoilers.
Ausma Zehanat Khan is an author with the most incredible credentials – a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law, specialising in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans, she has practised immigration and taught human rights law, as well as being founder of Muslim Girl magazine. I noticed after the first couple of chapters that they each began with an italicised epigraph, and idly wondered what these were. It was only when I picked up the book the wrong way by accident that I realised. They are all extracts from witness testimonies, statements and interviews with survivors of the Bosnian War; quotes from the Qur’an; Balkan proverbs, poems and folk songs and letters from both victims and survivors of the genocides. I found Khan’s use of these to be incredibly emotive and very grounding for the narrative. This novel is an incredible portrait of the wounds inflicted on a nation and its people, told without sentimentality but with great impact and real grace.
I already can’t wait for the next book in the Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak series!