Reading fiction is my favorite way to learn about history. It may not be particularly efficient on a facts-accumulated-versus-time-spent basis, but novels that open a window onto a new part of the world offer a depth that non-fiction can't match. We don't have to guess at what historical figures were thinking; instead we have characters whose thoughts we can plumb and motives we can understand. We don't have to read between the lines of correspondence and other primary sources; we can see firsthand how the tide of events pushes people to one action or another. Counterintuitive though it may seem, fiction makes history real to me in a way that cold hard facts just can't.
In The Unquiet Dead, Ausma Zehanat Khan unearths a horrifying time from our recent past and holds it up to the light. Even though it happened during my lifetime, before reading this book I knew very little about the Bosnian War. It's hard to wrap my brain around the idea that in 1995, while I was eating Cocoa Puffs and trundling off to 5th grade, huge swaths of people were being slaughtered as the UN looked on.
Khan's book comes at the crisis sidelong; it's set in modern-day Toronto and centers on a pair of detectives investigating the death of a man who apparently fell from the cliffs outside his home. The dead man is identified as Christopher Drayton, a wealthy businessman, but the police have reason to believe he was actually an escaped war criminal who made his way into Canada using an alias. His fall from the cliffs may have been an accident, a suicide—or murder, perpetrated by someone who had discovered his true identity and sought revenge for his heinous acts back in Bosnia. No matter what the investigation reveals, it's a potential PR nightmare for the Canadian government and must be handled with the utmost discretion.
The book is most effective when focused on the individual horrors suffered by those in the rape camps and death marches of the war. Khan's writing on the topic (primarily in flashbacks) is urgent, insistent, and she forces the reader to confront the crimes for which the genocidal Drayton was responsible. It's less convincing as a thriller. Since the only truly scary character is dead at the outset, any suspense or danger to the investigating officers feels manufactured, and it's difficult to care too deeply about who may have killed such an unequivocally terrible person.
So while it may not be a typical pulse-pounding thriller, that's okay, because The Unquiet Dead has higher ambitions. It's not the resolution of the mystery that will stay with you after the final page; what will haunt you are the stories of the characters who survived the unthinkable. And that's exactly as it should be.
With regards to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for the advance copy. On sale January 13.