Review: The Language of Secrets, Ausma Zehanat Khan

Esa Khattak and his partner Rachel Getty are back in a sophomore mystery called The Language of Secrets, in which Esa is called in to investigate the death of an undercover agent killed while investigating an extremist terror cell. The cell is still planning an attack in Toronto, so it’s vital that Esa should investigate the murder without letting the cell discover that the dead man, Mohsin (a university friend of Esa’s), was an agent of law enforcement.

The Language of Secrets

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, so I feel unqualified to speak to the success of the book as a mystery. As a piece of fiction, though, I found it immensely satisfying. Esa gets brought onto the case almost as political cover: They need a Muslim officer who can appear to be investigating the case without investigating it so much that the sting on the terrorist cell gets derailed. The lead detective handling the terror case believes that Esa was promoted unfairly for “diversity” purposes, and he is condescending and rude to Esa at every turn while undermining the legitimacy of the murder investigation that Esa and Rachel are working on. That his distrust of Esa turns out to have real, terrifying consequences for the case is predictable but also the kind of thing I don’t see played out that often in — particularly — mystery books.

At first I was surprised that Khan chose to go with a “Muslim terrorist cell” plot for her second book. The previous book dealt with the genocide in Bosnia, with Esa’s religious background giving a context and particularity to his investigations. This story felt, at first, altogether more like one that I’d encounter on a television show. But one of Khan’s strengths as a writer is that she uses the structure of a familiar story while fleshing out a range of experiences and faiths for her Muslim characters. Members of the cell have different motives and levels of involvement, while people like Esa and his sister, or Mohsin’s widow, or Mohsin’s father, practice a peaceful version of Islam that is, of course, far more common and normal than the violent extremism we see in the cell leader, Hassan.

An element of the book that I found very unsatisfying was the character of Esa’s sister Rukshana. There will be spoilers in this paragraph only. We find out early on — through Ciprian Coale — that Rukshana is engaged to the apparent leader of this extremist terror cell. When Esa goes to speak with her about it, Rukshana is hotly defensive of her relationship, which has arisen within the last year, and she refuses to listen to Esa’s words of caution. Okay, fine, people in love never listen to anyone who naysays them. The book never tells us what Ruksh sees in Hassan, or where she met him, or what the course of their relationship has been; and at the end of the book, after Hassan nearly kills Ruksh, we see her anger with Esa for not telling her that Hassan was part of a terror cell. But we don’t see any moment where she’s like “oh my God the person I said I loved was a violent terrorist.” It felt weird and off — she felt like a plot device, not a character in her own right.

Recommended!

Diverse Books Tag

The marvelous Sharlene at Olduvai Reads tagged me for the Diverse Books Tag.

The Diverse Books Tag is a bit like a scavenger hunt. I will task you to find a book that fits a specific criteria and you will have to show us a book you have read or want to read.

If you can’t think of a book that fits the specific category, then I encourage you to go look for oneA quick Google search will provide you with many books that will fit the bill. (Also, Goodreads lists are your friends.) Find one you are genuinely interested in reading and move on to the next category.

Everyone can do this tag, even people who don’t own or haven’t read any books that fit the descriptions below. So there’s no excuse! The purpose of the tag is to promote the kinds of books that may not get a lot of attention in the book blogging community.

Find a book starring a lesbian character.

I choose my favorite of Helen Oyeyemi’s books, White is for Witching. It’s about a pair of twins who live in a haunted and xenophobic house. The girl twin, Miranda, goes off to Cambridge and gets involved with a black girl. The house is not happy about it.

Find a book with a Muslim protagonist.

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead features a Canadian Muslim detective trying to solve a mystery relating to a possible Bosnian war criminal. This was obviously right up my alley, as I read very widely about genocides in history and their aftermaths. I enjoyed the mystery a lot and was excited to find that it’s the first in a series about this detective, Esa Khattak, and his right-hand woman, Rachel Getty.

Find a book set in Latin America.

A Latin America-set book on my TBR list that I can’t wait to read when it comes out next month is Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun, which is about three Jamaican women who fight against the installation of a new hotel in their community. It got a ton of buzz at BEA, and my pal Shaina raved about it, so I’m in!

Find a book about a person with a disability.

Do mental disorders count? If yes I am choosing Nathan Filer’s wonderful The Shock of the Fall, which made me cry many times like a tiny, tiny child. The depiction of what it’s like to live with schizophrenia is so beautifully done, without ever being patronizing or overly sentimental. I am tearing up now thinking of one moment in particular. Sniffle, sniffle.

Find a science fiction or fantasy book with a POC protagonist.

Don’t mind if I doooooo. A recent read that I enjoyed a lot, but didn’t get around to reviewing, was Nnedi Okorafor’s book Lagoon, in which a race of aliens makes their first contact in Lagos, Nigeria. All of the various protagonists trying to make sense of this bewildering new state of affairs are black Nigerians, and it’s a weird and spooky and excellent piece of scifi.

Find a book set in (or about) any country in Africa.

Jenny cracks her knuckles and does some jumping jacks in preparation, then remembers she should be reasonable about this and not get all crazy with it. Suffice it to say, I love reading books set in or about countries in Africa, and it is hard for me to pick just one.

I’m going to choose a book from a smaller press, Imran Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System. This book (which I’m still waiting for my library to order for me!) is a novel about the changes in South African society over the last forty years. I have been given to understand that it deals with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which I am extra interested in.

Find a book written by an Aboriginal or American Indian author.

Your recs for this category would be appreciated, as I didn’t have a ton of choices lined up. I’m choosing Ambelin Kwaymullina’s very enjoyable The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, a YA dystopian novel with (I’m delighted to report) a sequel to be published in America this year.

Find a book set in South Asia (Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc.)

I really like Ru Freeman’s book On Sal Mal Lane, which I read a few years back. Set on a road in Sri Lanka at the outset of the Sri Lankan Civil War, it depicts a group of families (some Tamil, some Sinhalese, and some Burgher) dealing with the changing political and racial dynamics of their country. It reminded me of one of my all-time favorite authors, Rumer Godden, and was just altogether great.

Find a book with a biracial protagonist.

Everyone was crazy about Fran Ross’s Oreo last year, when the 1974 satirical novel was reprinted. It’s a comic novel about a mixed-race woman in Philadelphia and New York, and although it has been described as picaresque and that is not really my jam,1, I am excited for Oreo to become the exception to my picaresque hate.

Find a book starring a transgender character or about transgender issues.

For this one, I’m choosing Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl. Protagonist Amanda has just started at a new school and is falling in love with a boy named Grant; she badly wants to come out to him as trans, but fears how he will take it. I hear amazing things about this book and this author and can’t wait to try it!

  1. although I love the word! Picaresque! I wish it meant something awesomer.