Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto: the body of Christopher Drayton is found at the foot of the cliffs. Muslim Detective Esa Khattak, head of the Community Policing Unit, and his partner Rachel Getty are called in to investigate. As the secrets of Drayton’s role in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide of Bosnian Muslims surface, the harrowing significance of his death makes it difficult to remain objective. In a community haunted by the atrocities of war, anyone could be a suspect. And when the victim is a man with so many deaths to his name, could it be that justice has at long last been served?
Once again with The Unquiet Dead I have had the privilege of reading a book that defies any simplistic recognition of it being a ‘crime thriller’. Instead what we experience as readers is a searing testimony to the futility and brutality of war, in this instance the violent break up of the former Yugoslavia, and a sensitive and heartfelt portrayal of survivor rage, and guilt. All this is cocooned within the more linear investigation of a suspicious death; a death that reaches back into the turbulent past, but with severe ramifications for those in the present.
I am rarely emotionally moved by a book to the degree that I need to sometimes halt and take a breath, and in common with this book, those have been occasioned by novels depicting war and its consequences. Given the emotional reach of this book in terms of its depiction of the genocide and rape that occurred in this conflict, Khan’s prose and imagery of war is beautifully controlled throughout. It is written with a clarity and grace of simplicity that every scene of man’s unconscionable violence towards others hammers straight into the heart of the reader. Taking into account the author’s depth of research, this feeling of discomfort is amplified by the knowledge that these scenes are so firmly grounded in truth. These dreadful events happened, thousands died, and many more live with the physical and mental scarring of having witnessed such tragedy. Alternating between the past and present, the reader remains fully engaged with both timelines throughout, slowly piecing together the incontrovertible truth of history continually reverberating in the present, as all the protagonists experience to some extent. Khan uses this motif not only in those affected by the war, but also other characters who have experienced some form of emotional, marital or familial upset too, so the level of human interest is palpable and certain situations recognisable to the reader too. It’s cleverly done, and merely strengthens the many levels of human relationships and experiences that permeate throughout the book.
For reasons that will be become absolutely clear when you read this book for yourselves, I am loath to delve too deeply in this review on some of the characters in this book for fear of giving too much away. Suffice to say, several of them exhibit the best and worst characteristics of the human condition, from quiet dignity to unbelievable greed and hatred. Instead, I would draw your attention to the unique combination of detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty who prove themselves so defined by their differences, but so symbiotic as an investigative team. There’s a wonderful quote from Getty on her taciturn and reserved boss, Khattak, in which she says, “He wasn’t a man who dealt in ultimate truths as she did, he traversed the underground cities of doubt and discrepancy where human frailty revealed itself in layer upon layer of incongruity.” Khattak remains almost unknowable throughout, being both sensitive and prone to introspection, but retaining an aura of quiet determination, despite certain revelations and his involvement in the case at a more personal level. Equally, Getty has an intriguing back story in terms of her family background which unfolds slowly, giving her some personal revelations of her own. She also proves an excellent foil to Khattak with her propensity to cut straight to the chase, and ask the difficult questions at the right time, without fear or favour. I liked both these characters immensely, and the strength of their partnership and very individual personalities that lie at the core of the book.
With a slow reveal of historic crimes, emotional wounds and the desire for monetary gain, revenge or closure, this books burns with a unique intensity, that is quite difficult to put into words. As a meditation on war and its aftermath it’s powerful and disturbing, and as a crime thriller on a conventional level it transcends the genre in terms of its emotional reach and characterisation. A difficult, yet thoroughly rewarding read, that will linger in my mind for some time to come. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)
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