The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Title: The Unquiet Dead (Esa Khattak & Rachel Getty #1)
Author: Ausma Zehanat Khan
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Format: Print (hardcover)
Rating: 3 out of 5
How I got it: I borrowed a copy from the library
Christopher Drayton was a lucky man; he was rich, multilingual, living in a luxurious house on the Scarborough Bluffs in Toronto, and engaged to a beautiful, voluptuous woman. But when he falls off the Bluffs to his death, investigators Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty are brought in to assess the situtation because all is not as it appears: Christopher Drayton’s true identity might actually be Dražen Krstić, a Bosnian war criminal responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were murdered.
Esa and Rachel are the core investigators of Community Police Services, a special unit designed to handle “minority-sensitive” cases. Esa, a practicing Muslim and former member of the Toronto Police, is the perfect man for the job; Rachel, much younger, is the stepdaughter of a revered cop and is part of CPS because no other unit will have her due to some past indiscretion — although what she did isn’t clear.
As evidence increasingly mounts that Christopher Drayton is Dražen Krstić, Esa and Rachel realize that the situation is murkier than they realize: while his fiancee thought she was the primary beneficiary of his will, it appears that Krstić also left a substantial bequest to a local museum celebrating the history of Andalusia, long known for its inclusivity and religious tolerance before the Reconquista of Spain. Why would a genocidal war criminal settle in Toronto, a city with a sizable Bosnian Muslim population? How much did his fiancee know about his past? And, perhaps most importantly, what possible reason would an Islamophobic murderer have for supporting a museum built in remembrance of a high-water mark of religious and multicultural tolerance?
I started to read The Unquiet Dead because noted fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed recommended it on Twitter earlier this year — the idea of reading a book where both the author and the protagonist were Muslim was a big part of the appeal for me. Throw in the fact that I don’t read a whole lot of mystery novels anyway, and it felt like just the book I was looking for to stretch my reading boundaries.
My eagerness intensified once I learned that the book was set in Scarborough, where I live. Scarborough is the eastern-most part of Toronto, and gets a really bad rap — it’s the Staten Island to downtown Toronto’s Manhattan. Now, while there have been other mystery novels set in Toronto, like Robert Rotenberg’s series, the ones I’ve read have been awfully downtown-centric, and if Scarborough’s mentioned at all, it’s usually only the really sketchy parts that are mentioned, like the string of motels on Kingston Road.
On top of that, I’m Macedonian, and Macedonia, like Bosnia, was one of the former constituent regions of Yugoslavia, which broke up in the early 90s. So in a lot of ways, The Unquiet Dead seemed like a book maximally calculated to appeal to me: it was a story that had connections both to where I live now, and to where my family came from.
However, I really struggled while reading this. For one thing, although the story takes place in Scarborough, it focuses on one or two particular high-income enclaves (the Bluffs and what sounds an awful lot like the Guildwood area) that that are really different from the rest of the borough where I live. Where are the strip malls? Where are the post-war neighbourhoods full of immigrant families? One or two scenes take place at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, which is literally a 10-minute drive from my house, but the most that is said about the location is a snarky comment about its brutalist architecture. Where are the gaggles of students from all across the GTA? What about the charming shops on Old Kingston Road around the corner? What about the long stretch of Military Trail that leads into the campus, full of houses with obscenely large lots that are being bought up and redeveloped?
I wanted to see a reflection of my neighbourhood, but all I got was a city setting with a serious case of white room syndrome. It didn’t feel like Scarborough. Hell, Rachel lives in Etobicoke (the borough on the extreme western end of Toronto) but Scarborough is in the east. Why are there no interminable drives from place to place, or barely any mention of the 401?
On top of that, I thought that one of the subplots was far more compelling than the main plot. As Esa and Rachel gather more and more evidence pointing to Drayton’s true identity, Rachel also learns a key piece of information about her family: the whereabouts of her younger half-brother, whom she assumed was missing or dead on the streets for years. When she finally gathers the courage to meet him in person, she learns that their mother knew where he was all along and met up with him repeatedly, and even as she repeatedly blamed Rachel for making him run away in the first place.
As the book progresses, Rachel constantly monitors her mother’s speech and actions, and slowly realizes how passive aggressive her mother has been to the family. This family dynamic is really interesting, and I want to see how it plays out in future books.
However, the central relationship between Esa and Rachel is one that I’m a bit more ambivalent about, as they both appear to have repressed feelings about each other — I really want their relationship to stay professional, rather than give in to some sort of future mandated heteronormativity. I find their potential romantic pairing even more problematic because of an incident from Esa’s past: he was falsely accused of sexual harassment by an attractive and sexually charismatic coworker because he spurned her advances, and she roped his best friend, a noted author, into corroborating her claims, resulting in a major professional setback for him.
Considering that the use of rape as a weapon of war in Bosnia is brought up as a repeated plot point in The Unquiet Dead, this use of the whole “woman claiming sexual abuse as a form of revenge” trope is incredibly off-putting. Especially in the context of contemporary Canadian politics and culture, where the judge of the Jian Ghomeshi trial justified a “not guilty” verdict with reasoning like this:
As I have stated more than once, the courts must be very cautious in assessing the evidence of complainants in sexual assault and abuse cases. Courts must guard against applying false stereotypes concerning the expected conduct of complainants. I have a firm understanding that the reasonableness of reactive human behaviour in the dynamics of a relationship can be variable and unpredictable. However, the twists and turns of the complainants’ evidence in this trial, illustrate the need to be vigilant in avoiding the equally dangerous false assumption that sexual assault complainants are always truthful. [Emphasis added]
Oh, those women. They just can’t be trusted, can they? I sense an uncomfortable strain of internalized misogyny throughout The Unquiet Dead, actually. Rachel constantly assesses her appearance against those of the women she encounters during her investigation, and always considers herself lacking, what with her thick, athletic build and mousy appearance. Rachel’s mother contributes to this low self-esteem with constant gaslighting. Laine, the woman who accused Esa of sexual harassment, is a curvy bombshell with a coterie of men surrounding her like mayflies. Melanie Blessant, the woman who was engaged to Drayton before he died, is portrayed as nothing more than a tasteless, tacky gold-digger who is willing to sacrifice the safety of her own daughters in order to snag a rich man. Mink Norman, the captivating woman who runs the Andalusian history museum, briefly catches Esa’s eye but is revealed to have ulterior motives.
In other words, most of the women in The Unquiet Dead, if not all of them, never have a chance to be three-dimensional beings. Rachel comes the closest due to her keen sense of detail that allows her and Esa to crack the case, but she still always judges herself as falling short of some unattainable feminine ideal that she thinks every other woman in the story meets. Internally, Rachel always feels herself to be in competition with these women, whether aesthetically or morally.
That lack of three-dimensionality, along with the treatment of the part of the city where I live as nearly a blank map, really rankles me.