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David reviews The Unquiet Dead

By David Otten

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

"Detective Esa Khattak is in the midst of his evening prayers when he receives a phone call asking that he and Detective Rachel Getty look into the death of a local man who has fallen off a cliff. At first Christopher Drayton's death--which looks like an accident--doesn't seem to warrant a police investigation, especially not from Khattak and Rachel's team, which handles minority-sensitive cases. But it soon comes to light that Drayton might have been living under an assumed name, and he may not have been the upstanding Canadian citizen he appeared to be. In fact, he may have been a Bosnian war criminal with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995."


The Unquiet Dead was the title selected for our March discussion with Bettendorf Library's Get Lit Book Discussion Group. I had been looking forward to reading this book since we finalized our selections and schedule for fall 2018 - summer 2019. This is the first title in a series of five books (so far). According to the author’s website, the series has been optioned for a television show.

I was initially intrigued to read about the character of Esa Khattak, a Muslim detective, who is the head of the Community Policing Section in Toronto. However, my big take-away from the book were all of the things I learned about the Bosnian War and the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosniaks during the war.

The author, Ausma Zehanat Khan, holds a PhD in International Human Rights Law. She does an excellent job of striking the appropriate balance between having respect and sensitivity for the gravity of her subject matter and writing an entertaining mystery.

The plot of this mystery centers on the death of a man going by the name of Christopher Drayton. Drayton has fallen to his death off a bluff near his residence. While there is no initial evidence of foul play, Esa Khattak is tasked with the investigation because of the suspicion that Drayton may actually be Bosnian war criminal, Dražen Kristić. As Khattak and his partner Rachel Getty, unravel the secret behind Drayton's true identity, motives and suspects begin to appear, a greedy fiancé, her possibly jealous ex-husband, the curator from a museum that would benefit from Drayton’s bequest, not to mention anyone from the community of Bosnian refugees in Toronto, whom may have discovered Drayton’s secret identity.  Compounding the problem of the ample number of suspects and possible motives is the fact that Khattak and Getty still cannot definitively prove whether or not Drayton's fall was an accident, suicide, or murder.

Each chapter starts with its own epigraph, some are quotes from the Qur’an and others are excerpts from letters and testimony from survivors of the massacre in Srebrenica. Woven cleverly into the plot their import becomes more apparent at the conclusion of the book. All of the sources for this material is documented in an extensive notes section at the end of the book.

I had two small quibbles with the book. First, I felt some of Kahn’s characterizations were uneven. There are several instances where characters behaved differently from what the reader expects given how the author presents them to us initially. My second complaint is with several of the sub-plots. Khattak’s stormy relationship with a previous partner and Getty’s dysfunctional family, for example, receive a substantial amount of coverage in the book. However, these plot lines are left mostly unresolved. This is an ongoing series though, and perhaps these plotlines receive further development in the subsequent books. I do intend to read them and find out.

Overall, this book is a very good debut novel. I recommend this book for anyone that enjoys police procedural series and anyone who is looking for a protagonist outside of the mold typical of this genre.  

One note of caution, while I would not characterize the book as overly graphic, in the sections containing letters and testimony from some of the victims of the war crimes in Bosnia, there are descriptions of physical violence, including the mass rapes that were used a tool of terror during the war.

If you are interested in finding other fiction titles with Muslim characters, check out this list. The titles span a range of genres and you will find titles appropriate for Youth, Young Adults, and Adults.