When he confessed to killing six people and injured nineteen others in an attack on a Quebec City mosque in 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette said: “I do not know how I committed such a senseless act.”
Yet Bissonnette, as Ausma Zehanat Khan points out in her Author’s Note in A Deadly Divide, was not charged as a terrorist. It would have too big a prosecutorial challenge to prove terrorist intentions or connections to terrorist organization. So why not just secure the conviction and lock up the perpetrator? (Bissonnette was sentenced to life—and won’t be eligible for parole for 40 years).
If not a direct act of terrorism, what fueled so much hate?
With the Bissonnette case as inspiration, Khan dispatches Esa Khattak, the Toronto-based head of Canada’s Community Policing Section, and partner Sgt. Rachel Getty into the murky fallout of a mass murder. Khattak and Getty arrive mere hours after the attack to find a brutal scene. The sight is “more devastation at a single crime scene that Esa Khattak had ever witnessed.”
The small town is Saint-Isidore-du-Lac, in the Province of Québec. At least on the surface, it’s quaint. “In daylight, under the warm wash of sunlight, the town’s charm would have been apparent: Gabled houses and stone cottages jumbled together along narrow, cobblestoned streets. And at two opposite ends stationed on rolling green hills, the university and the church, the secular and the sacred, each carving out a sphere of influence.”
The attack takes place in a “small, bright mosque” that is trying to fit in. “No exterior arches, no dome or minaret. A uniquely Québecois mosque? Or the sign of a community in hiding?”
The local police are led by Inspector Christian Lemaire, a complex and complicated cop. A young Muslim man is quickly arrested. A priest, who is revered in the community and who was holding the murder weapon when authorities arrived, is briefly quizzed.
Khattak, a devout Muslim, knows he has been brought in to manage the perception of how the murder investigation is handled. He is to act as a buffer, perhaps, on behalf of the small-town cops and any pushback form the community. But readers know Khattak and Getty aren’t there to work up talking points or to explain cop work in fluffy public relations messaging.
Hardly. Soon, Khattak and Getty are deep in the investigation. There are groups to explore, such as the neo-Nazi Wolf Allegiance, institutional veneers that need cracking, and a blowhard radio talk show host. Khan takes us straight into the chatter among the gutter-dwelling haters, who exchange their vile opinions in secret online chat rooms. Saint-Isidore, it turns out, has it all. Khan doesn’t flinch at recording the filth. (These sections are integral to the plot; skim at your peril.)
Tackling their fifth case, Khattak and Getty have changed and grown since Khan’s debut, The Unquiet Dead, a murder mystery that drew the pair into the horrors of the genocide at Srebrenica. There are nifty references to previous cases, both overseas and at home. As outsiders to Saint-Isidore, Khattak and Getty measure and manage relationships with locals, with each other, and with their fellow police officers, too. Getty is at first drawn to Lemaire—his distrust of politicians is appealing. And she’s given reason to reconsider, shocked at her own inability to remain on guard. Khan writes about the interpersonal space between characters like few others; she’s a keen observer of body language and nuanced dialogue, too. A Deadly Divide is built for understanding, not cheap thrills.
Getty, who is ever-protective of Khattak and respects his serene and heady approach to investigations, nonetheless is pushed to a point where she believes Khattak is in trouble. A Deadly Divide gives the reserved Khattak a chance to lay his cards on the table, both in his personal desires and with the case at hand.
Extremely well-populated with a rich cast of characters, A Deadly Divide explores one of the darkest issues of modern society, the conditions that make it acceptable to turn the idea of hate into destructive, senseless action. Unfortunately, anger and hate are in the air we all breathe. Not everyone is what they appear to be and, as Khan has taught us before, the language of secrets is a tough one to crack.