Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review of The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan (Minatour, 2015)

Esa Khattak of Toronto’s new Community Policing unit is asked to look into the death of Christopher Drayton, a seemingly successful businessman who has emigrated to Canada from Italy. The death looks like an accident, but Khattak’s friend in the Justice Department believes that Drayton might be Drazen Krstic, a commander of the Dragan Corps and perpetrator of war crimes in Bosnia, including the Srebrenica massacre. Afraid of a media scandal for allowing a wanted war criminal to legally migrate to the country and failing to act on anonymous tip-offs, Khattak is asked to undertake a low-key investigation until he is sure that it is Krstic that is dead. Along with his sergeant, Rachel Getty, he probes Drayton’s life and seeks information from the local, immigrant Bosnian Muslim community. Muddying the waters of the investigation is Drayton’s gold-digging girlfriend, whose only concern is to make sure she inherits his estate. Khattak is also somewhat blinded by his infatuation with the owner of a museum to which Drayton was thinking of donating a sizable sum and a strained relationship with his former best friend, who is one of Drayton’s neighbours; and Getty has a sideline trying to find her runaway brother.  As it becomes clear that Drayton is Krstic, Khattak and Getty try to work out if Drayton was pushed, and if so who by.

The Unquiet Dead is a police procedural that tells two intertwined stories. The first is the investigation into the death of Christopher Drayton, a businessman who has fallen to his death on some local bluffs. The second is a set of vignettes of war crimes committed in Bosnia in the early-to-mid 1990s and the impotence of the UN forces in protecting Bosnian Muslims from murder and rape. There are three links between the two threads – Christopher Drayton is suspected to be Drazen Krstic, a commander of the Dragan Corps, responsible for the Srebrenica and other massacres; Esa Khattak, the investigating police officer was a volunteer civilian in the former Yugoslavia; and there is a small Bosnian Muslim community now living in Toronto. In addition, some of the evidence are bits of written testimony as to the crimes committed during the war. Khan’s intent is clearly to tell the tale of the war crimes, the lack of protection provided by the UN forces at the time, and the subsequent lack of formal justice, through a fictional lens in which the suspicious death of suspected war criminal is investigated. As a strategy it partly works, but the other elements added to the telling in order to create a wider story felt clunky and weak. Khattak’s strained relationship with his former best friend who is a neighbour of the victim, and the backstory of Rachel Getty who is Khattak’s sergeant and still lives with her abusive father, played like character plot devices. Khattak’s former partner and Drayton’s girlfriend are over-the-top caricatures of scheming, bitchy women. The police procedural elements also just did not ring true – Khattak is meant to be head of a new high powered unit, yet he can find time to spend a couple of weeks on a single investigation, with just one supporting officer, and no other cases or pressures or contact with other team members. The result was a read that drew attention to a harrowing modern-day holocaust, but which had a few too many awkward plot devices, one-dimensional characters, and some lack of realism.

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