Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead

khanunquietdeadI have really mixed feelings about Ausma Zehanat Khan’s debut mystery The Unquiet Dead. For starters, I think it’s built around a good concept, one with a lot of potential for drama and moral seriousness. The contemporary crime turns out to be rooted in the evil and cruelty of the Bosnian War, particularly the massacre at Srebrenica; there’s a lot of historical back story, then, based in those events, as well as reflection on the inadequate international response at the time and since. The author’s expertise in these areas means that the novel is rich in chilling details, the accuracy of which is borne out by her footnotes. The generic form of a mystery sets up good opportunities for exploring connections between past and present as well as abstract problems, such as the interplay of justice and vengeance. The particular crime story Khan tells, too, invites debate about vigilantism in the face of bureaucratic inertia or, worse, indifference.

Also in the novel’s favor: the parts of The Unquiet Dead that are directly about the war and genocide are gripping in the way terrible true things are, the flashback interludes especially — though I found them a bit heavy-handed in the telling. The interspersed witness statements that form part of the case are an artful device, as well. And the mystery certainly aspires to be the kind I usually like: character-driven, multi-faceted, specific to a time and place and community, embedding its whodunit in socially and morally provocative material.

But notice that I say it “aspires to be” this kind: it doesn’t seem to me to succeed, quite, and so I felt really frustrated reading it, because I so wanted it to be better than it is. The characters that drive it, especially the detectives, never seemed entirely believable to me, never really came to life, despite the author’s insistent efforts to make them complicated and three-dimensional. I have a hard time putting my finger on just what doesn’t work: there are too many things going on at once, maybe, including family backgrounds that aren’t relevant to the unfolding crime story, and references to previous events and cases that we’re told resonate deeply for the characters but that can’t possibly do the same for us. The main detective pairing is too pat and familiar in too many ways: Rachel Getty, in particular, seemed like a watered-down Barbara Havers. Finally, the prose isn’t quite good enough to carry the book along. It too seemed to be trying too hard, insisting on profundity but falling into melodrama and cliches. By far the best part of the book for me was the “Author’s Note” at the end, where Khan reviews the story of the Bosnian War: it’s written with such clarity and unpretentious energy that I wished she had stuck to non-fiction for the whole project.

But (again), as her note makes evident, there are already plenty of non-fiction books about these events (some of which I’ve read), and yet I don’t think this is a particularly well-known or well-understood context, at least to North American audiences — not, at any rate, compared to the First World War, or the Holocaust, or other common settings for historical fiction and film. Popular fiction can reach readers who might never pick up Michael Sells’s The Bridge Betrayed or Samantha Powers’s A Problem from Hell — so from that angle, The Unquiet Dead is doing something important in drawing attention to the horrors of what happened and provoking consideration of what could ever count as “solving” a crime with such origins. Still, what matters most, since Khan did choose to write fiction, is whether the result is a good novel, and I just don’t think The Unquiet Dead is, much as (given how many things are smart and interesting about it) I wish it were.

Reading it I found myself wondering: what must it be like to a book editor working on a project like this? Clearly the editor at Minotaur (which is an imprint of St. Martin’s Press) thought the book was done, ready to face readers and critics. So maybe I’m just being unduly hard on it! Or else the conclusion was reached that this particular book was as good as it was ever going to be — something that any graduate supervisor has probably thought about at least one thesis at some point. I have no idea what specific advice I could have given Khan to make the book better in the ways I wanted: “make your characters seem like people, not ideas for people” or “write better” both seem too vague to be genuinely helpful, while “give Ian Rankin your idea and research and let him write the book” would probably have been an unwelcome suggestion!

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8 Responses to Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead

  1. Annie says:

    I’ve felt the same thing about a few of the books I’ve reviewed, that they weren’t quite done yet. When reading some of the worst, I’ve wanted to take a red pen to whole sections and send the ARC back with notes for the publisher.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I have sometimes had that urge most strongly with established writers (Sue Grafton, for instance) who I suspect are getting a pass on editing altogether because what the heck, their books will sell anyway.

  2. Cathy Stanton says:

    I got excited there for a minute, Rohan. It was sounding like a book I’d love! The problems you mentioned, however, are exactly what drives me up the wall when I read a new author. I greatly admired The Problem From Hell and another book by Samantha Power: Chasing the Flame. She is an amazing non fiction writer and a novel based on the horrors against humanity that she describes, just can’t be second rate.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I agree: it is tricky enough turning historical horrors into fiction, with all the ethical tensions that arise about deriving entertainment from them. The onus to do a really good job artistically seems especially strong in these cases. I didn’t think this was a terrible book or anything: it seemed to me to be trying really hard, with great sincerity. And other readers might well think it succeeds, of course.

  3. I wonder if the book tried to be too many things at once. It wants to be accurate in historical details and the horrors of the war, while attempting to be a mainstream novel in terms of character development with complex backstories, but wait, the plot’s a detective novel, too.

  4. diana says:

    Well, I seem to be alone in having found this not only good as a detective novel but deeply moving as well…of course there are flaws…but so seldom does one read a book and know that there is not one word too much, not one under developed idea or flawed plot detail. In recent times for me that “perfect” novel has been Time present and Time past by Deirdre Madden

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I’m sure you aren’t alone in that – one of the mysteries of reading is why responses can vary so much! For me, this one fell flat in all the ways I tried to specify, but it has received good reviews in the press already. I hadn’t heard of Madden’s novel, but thanks for the heads-up: it sounds very interesting.

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