Title: The Unquiet Dead
Author: Ausma Zehanat Khan
Release Date: January 13, 2015
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Genre: Cultural Fiction, Crime Fiction
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Rachel Getty has been working with Essa Khattak on solving minority-centered police cases, and she loves her job and her boss. But when a new case comes in, Rachel is baffled by both the circumstances as well as her boss’s behavior. Christopher Drayton was a well-to-do older gentleman who apparently fell from a cliff during a night walk, though the coroner believes there may have been some foul play. Rachel has no idea why she has been asked to review this case, but she quickly suspects when Essa informs her that Drayton may not be the man he presented himself to be. Rachel must delve into dark history to help uncover who this man was and who might have killed him.
Though The Unquiet Dead has some rough patches, Khan does an excellent job tying a smaller murder narrative to a larger cultural history, providing harrowing details of a period of history most of her readers will be unfamiliar with.
The Unquiet Dead is a complex novel that is centered around the massacre of Muslims during the Bosnian war, a subject that many Americans unfamiliar with the time period might vaguely remember, but have no real knowledge of. I personally was just a girl when these events were occurring, but I remember discussions such as “ethnic cleansing” happening daily on the news. As a result, I was eager to delve into Khan’s book, to understand more about this tragedy I knew little about, but the scope of which ended up shaking me to my core.
Rachel is a good narrator for The Unquiet Dead, and I appreciate that Khan chose her instead of Essa for the main character. Rachel isn’t naive by any means, but she’s an outsider on this case. Essa is intimately familiar with the Srebrenica massacre, but it’s through Rachel that we’re able to learn the ins and outs of the absolute horrors of this time period. Not only that, but Essa’s mysterious behavior adds another layer of mystery to this novel. Rachel is smart and practical, and she trusts herself, making her a strong character to continue this series, if this book is headed that way. Indeed, there’s a theme of strong, protective young women running through Khan’s book; it’s clear that domestic abuse (in all its forms) is an issue dear to the author’s heart, though I felt that it was used once too often in this novel among the disparate characters.
It’s clear that one of Khan’s aims with this novel was to educate the larger public about the Srebrenica massacre and the horrible masscres of Muslims that surrounded it, something that’s much easier to do with fiction than nonfiction for a popular audience, and she accomplishes her goal well. She ties an entertaining, mysterious narrative to this entirely atrocious period in history, making it easier to read, but also including a lot of great (if difficult) information about what actually happened. This novel floored me in that way. I couldn’t believe I didn’t know more about what happened during the Bosnian war and the UN’s role in it.
That’s not to say The Unquiet Dead is perfect; I had issues with Essa’s mysteriousness; it seemed almost manufactured. The vagueness of the first part of the novel also made me have trouble connecting with it; it’s only through Rachel that I really engaged with the story. But Khan has a larger purpose here, and I appreciate that. The fact that she’s trying to tell one doesn’t absolve her of the need for an engaging narrative by any means, but, despite some rough patches, she does provide that. I was interested in the smaller story of Drayton’s murder, while being consumed by the larger history. All in all, I very much enjoyed The Unquiet Dead despite the quibbles I had with it (hence the star rating) and very much appreciate that Khan provided suggestions for further reading in the back of the book, as I’ll absolutely be taking advantage of that list.