A couple weeks after finishing The Unquiet Dead, a slow-burn and well-executed mystery that uses the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica as its plot seed, I opened the newspaper to read that war crimes prosecutors were moving to arrest direct participants in what National Public Radio called “Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II.”
I had learned so much from reading The Unquiet Dead that I felt sort of up-to-speed about the lingering issues and international political clouds around the slaughter. But rest assured that Ausma Zehanat Khan knows the difference between a lecture and a mystery novel—The Unquiet Dead is built as a quiet, in-control thriller first, lesson in “don’t forget” second.
The crimes, in fact, were horrible. Are horrible. How the world dealt with them at the time is fairly hard to fathom given all the other situations that have prompted “action” and “engagement” by world superpowers.
I won’t get into the details here other than to suggest grabbing a copy of The Unquiet Dead, for the interesting pair of investigators Khan created, the well-layered story and the gripping history lesson.
First, Ausma Zehanat Khan was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book. A review follows. By the way, The Los Angeles Times (“superb”) and The Washington Post (“impressive”) have all raved as well. The Denver Post, too (“outstanding”) and Library Journal, Kirkus and many others.
Question: Let’s start with the obvious—how did you come across this idea and/or what’s your connection to all the events surrounding the horrors of Srebrenica?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: My Ph.D. dissertation was on the fall of Srebrenica, so for many years I was intimately acquainted with the horrors that occurred during the Bosnian war. I had met refugees, read war crimes testimony, survivor testimony, UN reports – so those voices were speaking to me powerfully over the years. I had always wanted to write about the fall of Srebrenica, and this seemed like a way to tackle the subject that was perhaps not as head-on, and also allowed for my detective Esa Khattak’s unique point of entry into the case.
Question: Were you surprised at how this particular event was overlooked or overshadowed at the time?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: At the time, the siege and the fall of Srebrenica received significant news coverage. What I wasn’t expecting was that we would witness this slow-motion genocide on our television screens while the international community stood by. The intervention in Bosnia was a failure roundly admitted by the United Nations now, but it was deeply disturbing to witness the equivocating at the Security Council, and the refusal to act to prevent the crime of genocide at the time. When we look at the humanitarian crisis in Syria today, we see that none of the lessons of the war in Bosnia were learned.
Question: Do you think the Bosnian ideas and ideals of pluralism can ever be achieved? Seems like more and more of a fantasy, does it not, given what’s happening in the Middle East?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: We do see it in many countries today—and not just in the West, but also in places that are ethnically and religiously mixed like Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Turkey to some degree. The question is whether we value pluralism, multiculturalism, and believe that the citizens of any nation should have the equal protection and benefit of the law, with equal standing under the law. When you look at the best of what humanity is capable of, you can’t help but think it’s possible. My hometown of Toronto is a wonderful example of this. But like the history of the wars of religion in the West, the convulsions we see in the Middle East will be the struggles of decades, as people search for a way to realize their democratic aspirations, and their aspirations for fundamental human rights. I choose to remain optimistic.
Question: Almost don’t want to know the answer, were war criminals from that atrocity able to flee to other countries, take up new identities?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: Yes. There was a story published recently in the New York Times that the State Department is set to deport some 150 Bosnian Serb fugitives from the United States, where they were able to flee their crimes in Bosnia, and find safety here. Many of them are suspected of participating in the Srebrenica massacre.
Ausma Zehanat Khan: Thank you so much, that’s so kind! I try to write the kinds of characters that I enjoy reading—characters with conflict in their past, emotional turmoil, but a determination to rise above and try to choose the right course in their lives. They can be short-sighted or flawed in other ways, but they have a sense of moral purpose—at least as far as my detectives are concerned, and a sense of compassion for others whose lives suffer from more wreckage.
Question: Care to tell us about your path to publication? Was this a manuscript you’d been working on for some time?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: Yes, The Unquiet Dead has been in my consciousness for years. The research took me a full year of concentrated effort, apart from my graduate studies, and the writing another year still. Then I submitted the manuscript to the Minotaur Books First Crime Novel competition and was lucky enough to catch the eye of a very talented editor, who helped me shape the book into what it would eventually become. A fairytale ending for a first novel!
Question: What’s next for your writing and what’s next for your two main characters?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: I’ve written the next book in the series featuring Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty—they investigate the murder of a young man in the woods of Algonquin Park, a murder that appears to be linked to a terrorism plot, but in ways that I hope will subvert readers’ expectations of this kind of story. And I’ve been working on the manuscript of a fantasy novel, a genre I’ve always loved—a kind of historical fantasy meets alternate future, so we’ll see how that one goes, but I hope to write many more Khattak/Getty novels because I have so many more stories I’d love to tell.
One of the best things about the mystery genre is the unlimited variety of topics and issues available and Ausma Zehanat Khan mines the tragedy Srebrenica in 1995 for the The Unquiet Dead, an intriguing and smart story with plenty of complex layers.
The story is good but might have just stayed on the page as a ho-hum mystery without the fictional creation of Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. Khattak is head of Toronto’s Community Policing Section. Getty is a sergeant in the same unit. They aren’t traditional detectives—their small team (it’s just the two of them) is designed to handle sensitive cases that involve minorities. Khattak, however, is a second-generation Canadian. And he’s Muslim. Getty is the more native Canadian; her father was a cop and Getty has issues with both her father and a missing brother.
There’s been a death—a body has been found at the base of a cliff and it’s a businessman who lives nearby. His name is Christopher Drayton. It doesn’t take Khattak too long to find out that Drayton was an alias for Drazen Krstic, a war criminal known for his involvement in the horrific events in Srebrenica, where thousands of Muslim men and boys were slaughtered. Confirming the identity takes time but it’s good, methodical, grounded police work.
The Unquiet Dead moves forward in three ways. First, as an ever-widening group of suspects is identified. There’s a fiancée, the fiancée’s daughters, the fiancée’s ex-husband, the curator of a museum and others. Second, through the exchanges between Khattak and Getty. Both are loaded with interesting attitudes and opinions—frequently about each other—and both have their own emotional layers and complications. (Khattak is particularly fascinating, a solid character who demonstrates how to not wear religion on your sleeve.) And finally, the story proceeds through flashbacks from the scenes in Srebrenica, drawn from eyewitness testimony. That might sound heavy-handed, but it’s not.
Together and separately, Khattak and Getty pursue the many leads and slowly realize that they are probing around in a thicket that is much more tangled than they first realized. Much of The Unquiet Dead is thoughtful, probing conversation. By the end, the list of themes rippling through the plot is impressive—culture, religion, family for starters. The plot is built for the brain, not necessarily for producing chills up your spine. The Unquiet Dead started with a great concept and offers a solid mystery, well-delivered.