I’m a fan of ‘international crime’ in general and of Canadian thrillers in particular, and of novels which use this genre to get to grips with difficult issues. So although this was my first encounter with Detective Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, the situation – a small Quebecois community – grabbed me straight away.
So did the set up: the aftermath of a mass shooting in a mosque. A tough subject to deal with delicately, but author Ausma Zehanat Khan presents it with a serious-minded mix of appalled revulsion and open-minded determination. She then tackles the tricky subject of radicalisation – of young white males by fascist influences – set against the background of long term tensions between local English and French influences.
A series of ‘minor’ hate crimes have been overlooked, and hidden bitterness thrives unseen. Teenage angst and unrequited love between confused members of different sects come to light after the initial attack which left a dozen dead. Esa, an experienced Islamic community officer, is brought in the work alongside the local detectives working with his regular partner, Rachel.
Esa certainly is an unusual character – ludicrously attractive, it seems, but oblivious to romantic opportunities as he’s entangled in his own delicate domestic situation. Most of the minor characters seem determined to throw themselves at him and then spend half the book in an embarrassed or embittered sulk.
Similarly, the sparks of sexual attraction fly between Rachel and the local lead detective. You can really feel the blistering heat of mutual attraction; part antagonism, part flirting, all uncertainty. Rachel can’t trust him on any level – officers from the neighbourhood may be a part of the radical network – but she can’t avoid her physical response to him.
Some of this ardour sits a little uneasily alongside the grim subject matter. This is a complex investigation that peels back the bitterness between different segments of the local community. A charming town is revealed to be a place where casual bigotry is part of everyday life, where police officers spout casual anti-Semitism but where the local hate-pedalling shock-jock turns out to be surprisingly sensitive in private. Just as it must be in real life, the cross-cultural situation is horribly convoluted.
The author has a deft ability to give her characters vivid, credible emotional responses. A genuine sense of spirituality balances the graphic reality of mass murder. The encounter between Esa and the town’s Catholic priest where, after a shaky start they share a meeting of conscience, is genuinely touching.
Yet there may be too much going on in this book for its own good. At times the story seemed subservient to the politics, the plot buried beneath a metric tonne of good intentions. One of the most intriguing aspects of the entire novel – the stalker in the shadows with Esa in his/her sights – wasn’t resolved at all, but simply left dangling.
I certainly enjoyed seeing things from the perspective of a Muslim investigator, but felt that the policing and detection aspects of the story were pretty flimsy. For experienced officers, Esa and Rachel sure know how to do exactly the wrong thing in any risky situation. And the cliché of ‘political pressure from above’ alienated me.
So while I enjoyed many aspects of A Deadly Divide, there were several segments where I was thinking ‘just get on with it.’ And the lack of resolution to the intriguing subplot really irritated me. I wasn’t convinced to go back and read the earlier books in the series.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
A Deadly Divide by Ausma Zehanat Khan is available at Amazon