January 30, 2017
Among the Ruins, by Ausma Zehanat Khan
What an absolutely crazy, awful and perfect week to be reading Ausma Zehanat Khan’s third novel in her series about Detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, Among the Ruins, which is published on February 14. Khan’s first book, The Unquiet Dead, won an Arthur Ellis Award, and I read her second novel last summer. In her latest, Khattak is on leave from his job with Canada’s Community Policing Department and has stolen away to Iran on his Pakistani visa, an escape from his troubles at home and a chance to reconnect with his cultural heritage. He has visions of taking in gorgeous sites and and eating delicious food, but any expectations of a holiday are disappeared when he realizes he’s being followed. Turns out a Canadian-Iranian filmmaker, Zahra Sobhani, has been murdered at a notorious prison and Khattak is quietly urged by the Canadian government, on behalf of a shadowy middlewoman, to find out what happened to her. Zahra Sobhani’s work had focussed on Iran’s Green Movement, which contested the results of the 2009 elections after a surge of populism and demands for democratic reform. The regime came down hard on these dissidents, but Zahra Sobhani would have thought her Canadian citizenship might have protected her—so why didn’t it? Khattak considers this question and becomes involved with a group of young people who’d been involved in the Green Movement, this line of narrative providing a powerful perspective on what it’s like to fight for freedom under an oppressive regime. Meanwhile, Khattak’s also receiving mysterious letters from someone who seems to be a political prisoner, and there are aspects of Zahra Sobhani’s death that refuse to make sense. Back home in Toronto, his partner Rachel Getty is perusing her own investigation involving crown jewels and an archivist at the Royal Ontario Museum, stolen jewels and a smuggling operation on the Caspian Sea.
It’s a mystery whose plot(s) take the shape of something created by a spirograph, which makes it all a little bit difficult to follow at times. This along with devastating sections of the narrative from a character being tortured and raped in prison mean that this isn’t a mystery you’d ever call “cosy,” but then I don’t know that a work of detective fiction has ever been more urgent and relevant than this one. Khan is a gorgeous writer, her sentences shining, and she so vividly evokes an Iran of striking contradictions, of beauty and ugliness, of progress and backwardness, of people who are repressed but who also own themselves in the most courageous, remarkable ways. With a PhD in International Human Rights Law, Khan writes from a remarkable foundation and knowledge of the implications of the stories she tells, and this underlines these stories with so much power.
Most powerful of all though: for readers to enter the mind of a Muslim-Canadian character. Not such a leap, really, but it certainly informed my perspective as I heard the news last night of a shooting at a mosque in Quebec City. Thinking of Esa Khattak: “He’d been cautious since he’d chosen the police as a career. Careful and measured consideration was the only way he knew how to answer the assumption of Muslim rage… Whether he enjoyed living his life on these terms when he could have been at ease, expressing the different sides of himself, the things that have enriched him, enriched, he believed, the fabric of his nation, was a separate question.”