Ausma Zehanat Khan's 'Unquiet Dead' rises above mystery setting

Ausma Zehanat Khan's astonishing mystery debut, 'The Unquiet Dead,' refreshingly incorporates Muslim elements

While publishers may rave about mysteries that "transcend the genre," few soar beyond their crime-solving objectives. And to find such a treasure in a first-time effort is rarer still.

"The Unquiet Dead" bears examination not just because it is a debut mystery. Its author, Ausma Zehanat Khan, is a Canadian Muslim who holds a PhD in international human rights law, giving rise to some questions: What might such a writer bring to a mystery? How much might her faith or academic research be reflected on the page? With two recent shootings in Canada involving Muslim converts and terrorist suspects, one further wonders how a mystery written by a Canadian Muslim might illuminate how our neighbors to the north interact with Muslim communities around crime, something too rarely portrayed in fiction on either side of the border.

"The Unquiet Dead" addresses these questions directly in the opening pages by showing Esa Khattak resuming his interrupted Maghrib prayers: "Time had taught him to view his faith through the prism of compassion: when ritual was sacrificed in the pursuit of the very values it was meant to inspire, there could be no judgment, no sin."

Khattak, a former Toronto homicide detective and national counterintelligence agent, is now head of Canada's CPS, Community Policing Section. Headquartered in Toronto, CPS was founded in the wake of the disastrous rendition of a Syrian Canadian falsely accused of terrorism in 2002. Khattak's leadership of the section is both a high-profile promotion, complete with the autonomy to select his own team, and convenient cover for the Canadian government should it be accused of bias toward minorities, particularly Muslims.

Khattak's twilight prayers were interrupted by a call from Tom Paley, chief historian at the Department of Justice, who asks him to investigate the death of Christopher Drayton, a wealthy retired businessman who has died from a fall near his home. And while Khattak learns things from Paley that cloud his mind with painful memories of youthful political passions, his choice for a partner to work the investigation with him is clear — Rachel Getty, a sergeant in the CPS, whose perspective he greatly values.

Getty is a perfect foil for the diffident, elegant Khattak — "boxy, square-shouldered, indifferently dressed." She is also direct, without artifice but at the same time sensitive to the nuances of Muslim communities. Getty, like Khattak, brings painful life experiences to her work, not the least of which is her difficult relationship with her father, a gruff, overbearing retired cop whom she blames for her teenage brother running away from home some seven years before.

Drayton's fall leads Khattak and Getty to Scarborough Bluffs, an exclusive Toronto enclave that was home to the dead man as well as his neighbor, Nathan Clare, a successful writer and estranged college friend of Khattak's. Clare knew the dead man socially through another neighbor who is about to open a small museum devoted to the art and artifacts of historical Al-Andalus, a region of what is now Spain where Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures lived harmoniously for hundreds of years.

According to papers Khattak and Getty later discover in the dead man's home, Drayton was reportedly funding the museum, a fact his fiancée, Melanie Blessant, didn't particularly like. Was Drayton's interest in the museum enough of a threat for Blessant to push him to his death? Or did the hyper-sexualized gold digger have a rival? And what effect did dozens of cryptic notes found in his study ("This is a cat-and-mouse game. Now it's your turn to play it") have on the dead man's state of mind?

Together and separately, Khattak and Getty pursue these leads. As they interview Blessant, her daughters (who love and hate their mother in equal measure), ex-husband Dennis Blessant and others who knew the dead man, Drayton's layers are gradually stripped away, revealing a secret identity that sends the investigation in a sobering new direction, taking the investigators and readers into a refugee Muslim community with startling results.

Without divulging plot points that give "The Unquiet Dead" its resonance, it is clear that Khan has brought every ounce of her intellect and professional experience in working with Muslim refugees to this affecting debut. Her use of certain mystery conventions echoes the masters — Agatha Christie's classic "Murder on the Orient Express" and P.D. James' "The Murder Room" come most readily to mind — while Khattak and Getty's relationship is reminiscent of classic male-female detective duos like Elizabeth George's Sir Thomas Lynley and Det. Sgt. Barbara Havers or Mo Hayder's Det. Inspector Jack Caffery and Sgt. Flea Marley.

Yet for all of the echoes of the greats, Khan is a refreshing original, and "The Unquiet Dead" blazes what one hopes will be a new path guided by the author's keen understanding of the intersection of faith and core Muslim values, complex human nature and evil done by seemingly ordinary people.

It is these qualities that make this a debut to remember and one that even those who eschew the genre will devour in one breathtaking sitting.

Woods has written four Charlotte Justice novels, including "Inner City Blues," which was shortlisted for an Edgar Award for first mystery.

The Unquiet Dead

Ausma Zehanat Khan
Minotaur/St. Martin's: 344 pp., $25.99

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