Year 2 / Book 44: The Unquiet Dead

44) The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

I intended this to be a light read, a bit of new police procedural writing to get me through the week. I was interested by the story being set in Canada (makes a nice change from the backstreets of London/an American city) and the writer and protagonist being Muslim which is, in short, fairly rare in the crime fiction genre. What I hadn’t been prepared for was the depth that this novel would have, and how affecting it would be; because it is not a light bit of standard crime, but a police story which circles and then becomes entwined with the story of Srebrenica and war crimes in the Balkans.

The plot revolves around the death of Christopher Drayton who we find out relatively early is actually a war criminal called Drazen Krstic, who committed atrocities in Srebrenica and surrounding towns against Bosnian Muslims. Esa Khattak, the main detective, is called in precisely because of his identity as a Muslim detective and his understanding of that community, something which isn’t immediately obvious to his sidekick / assistant Rachel Getty (in one of the few traditional police/crime-lit tropes, they have a bit of chemistry and tension between them). She is dealing with her own family disappearance, in this case her brother who has long since left the family home, which is an involving sub-plot.

As the book goes on, the plot becomes increasingly about what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and there are letters (based on real testimony) and details of survival and death (also based on real examples) which build both a detailed picture, but also an increasing sense of horror and emotion and an understanding of possible motivation, as well as questioning what ‘justice’ really looks like. If one looks at Khan’s biography, you can find she has a PhD in International Human Rights Law, with a specialisation in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. It is fair to say that this is the first police procedural I’ve read where the notes at the end contain testimony from the International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

It is, as a result, a hugely powerful read. The plot becomes a little far-fetched as things progress (one too many coincidences, one too many changed names) but it is incredibly moving. What I was unprepared for was that, although this book was written in 2015, I only read it this past week: in which the verdict from the ICTY on Ratko Mladic was set to be announced.So it was that I found myself watching things I had just read as ‘fiction’ in the book featured in a report on Newsnight: a man who had pretended to be dead amongst hundreds of men being shot, in order to then escape through the woods; a school used as an execution centre, as buses pulled up to it; a Dutch UN compound becoming a safe haven for all too few. So yes, a good book, an involving story, and an emotional read. But much more importantly, a reminder and an education about things that happened less than 25 years ago.

Score: 8/10

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