At first glance, The Unquiet Dead may seem to be a regular murder-mystery or detective novel. However, Ausma Zehanat Khan’s debut is so much more and that much more is both profound and disturbing, but incredibly excellent nonetheless.
First of all, and before getting into the details of the book, I must start out in saying that I’ve taken a star away from my overall rating. This is only because this review is meant for the audiobook version of The Unquiet Dead. (Therefore, thanks goes out once again to Audiobook Jukebox and to Highbridge Audio for granting us a copy.) This was a deeply affecting and top rate murder mystery, however, had it not been for the (unfortunate) narration by Peter Ganim, I do feel I would have given this 5-stars. And perhaps I should give Zehanat Khan those 5 stars, for this is a stellar debut and well-deserving of 5-stars. But, the audio, oh that audio, that narration…
In the beginning I was slightly put off by Ganim’s drone (I think that is how I would best describe it?). I grew accustomed to it however and settled in because the content in The Unquiet Dead is nothing short of arresting (ha – didn’t mean that to be a play on the plot of this story). But then Ganim narrates the female characters’ voices and holy hell – let’s just say that my eyes still have not rolled to the front of my head. To say he sounded like a drag queen would be an absolute insult to drag queens everywhere. Couple this with the author’s choice for a last name: Khattak, and hearing this name, repeated over and over in Ganim’s voice was more like an At-Tack on the ears. It was like bullets aimed directly at my ears. Nevertheless, I did stay with the audio until the end because I already had so many books on the go and I needed an audio for the commute. I just wasn’t willing to pull the plug on it and it was probably because I was so invested in the story.
The irritation with a male narrator attempting female voices, leads me to discuss my great, great irritation with audiobook narrators that significantly force and change their voice to narrate the opposite sex. There is a persistent and constant question running through my head when forced to endure these ridiculously narrated female voices attempted by men. This is the case for The Unquiet Dead. So, my question is, when they are in the recording booth and the producer is listening to this WHY do they not stop them from continuing using this voice? Why? Why? Honestly? Why? Do they not hear that? Do they not hear how absurd those attempts at female voices sound? (When Ganim read in the voice of one character named Melanie, I thought I was going to yank the CD out from my car and run it over multiple times.) (And yes, the same can be said about the irritation felt for female narrators attempting to change and deepen their voice for the male voices.)
Despite the unfortunate narration, The Unquiet Dead was an excellent read for me. Now, I’ve seen many reviewers on Goodreads complaining about Khan’s use of a fictional detective novel and the link to the real horrors of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the 90s. Khan’s credentials lend her as well and able to write a non-fiction account, certainly, but for myself, I do not share those complaints about marrying these horrific events into this fictitious tale. This merging of a detective story with actual events and fictionalizing the discovery of a possible war criminal worked out very well for me. At times it was quite disturbing, but it is very well-written, and pulled out many emotions and left a great impact for certain.
I’m also hoping that Khan is planning on featuring Detectives Rachel Getty and her boss, Esa Khattak in a series of novels. There was much in The Unquiet Dead outside of the case they were working on here, that is left to explore in terms of their working and personal relationship(s) – both between them, in their families and in their personal lives. We’ve been given a great beginning and I would certainly read more about Rachel and Esa.
For this case, Rachel and Khattak are called to investigate Christopher Drayton’s death. Drayton’s death is first seen as an accidental fall from a cliff near his home and is one that shouldn’t warrant an investigation, most certainly not from Rachel and Khattak’s team which mainly handles community or minority sensitive cases. As they talk to more of those involved or associated with Drayton however, it is discovered he may have been living under an assumed name. He may possibly be Dražen Krstić. Krstić is a war criminal with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. He is well known as the “Butcher of Srebrenica”.
While Rachel and Esa are peeling back the layers of this increasingly complex case, the reader is enlightened to the many horrors of the torture, death and rape camps and to the terror experienced by a small number of survivors from the slaughter in Srebrenica. Difficult material for certain, but Khan has deftly weaved these horrors into a first-rate novel. Certainly this is one that will not be leaving my thoughts any time soon and important one to learn about a not-so-often written about war.
It is also well worth the time to spend reaching the end and hearing the Author’s Note following the close of The Unquiet Dead. To listen to the history, the start of the civil war leading to the horrific end of Bosnia – the ethnic and cultural cleansing. No, this isn’t something that will leave me anytime soon.