I make no bones about it, I’m an adherent of Khan’s impressive crime novels. A Deadly Divide takes the Khattak and Getty series to five, these novels are consistently brilliant, heart felt, deeply engrossing and richly entertaining. They are easily among the most impressive police procedurals being written today because of their powerful insight into society and its woes. Ausma Zehanat Khan is a fine storyteller and the murder mystery here is intriguing, but more than this, this novel is stridently intelligent and fittingly compassionate.
Very few crime authors are this relevant, this much in the moment. Few crime writers explore the pivotal issues affecting the modern world with such clarity and understanding. I have said it before but the Khattak and Getty novels are a perfect example of why good crime fiction matters; they confront difficult contemporary themes, among them racism, religious division and societal cohesion/lack of. A Deadly Divide, like the others in the series, gets right to the heart of an important contemporary theme – a mass shooting at a Mosque in a small town. This reflects on Canada’s relationship with its Muslim immigrant communities, in particular in Quebéc. To course, this is a theme that resonates across the globe.
Prologue – Someone is watching inspector Esa Khattak, waiting for that moment to strike. They know about his love, Sehr Ghilzai, she’s of interest, but mainly it’s about waiting for Khattak to drop his guard.
The Mosque – There’s blood sprays all over the walls, the smell of it is sickening, this is a scene of devastation. Even seasoned detectives have never seen anything quite this. Khattak surveys the crime scene as the technicians do their work, Superintendent Martine Killian at his side. There are two bodies against a bookcase in one corner, two more in the main prayer space, one against the mihrab, elsewhere a dead father’s arms enfolding his son in a futile effort to protect him. At the end of the corridor a group of Súreté du Québec officers surround a man sitting in a chair with an AR-15 in his lap. Their leader, homicide detective Christian Lemaire, is speaking in calm measured tones to the man, Étienne Roy, the priest at the local church, he won’t be arrested tonight. ESA wonders if this could be the shooter?
Outside Diana Shehadeh of the Muslim Civil Liberties Association is addressing a small crowd of journalists. She and Khattak have crossed swords before, it’s important rumour and conjecture don’t overtake the facts. Khattak realises that his unit, Community Policing, has been brought in to sooth the community tensions. This small town near Gatineau Park is about to become the focus of a storm witnessed by the whole of Canada. Superintendent Killian has decided the case will be run by the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team INSET, Khattak will be second in command. Early speculation centres on whether this a mass shooting, something more personal or an act of terrorism.
On the way to the hospital Lemaitre informs Khattak and Getty that they have a suspect in custody, there are more victims too, four women murdered in the basement, the woman’s section of the Mosque, twelve more people are injured, some of them expected to die soon. Amadou Duchon was arrested, the police say he was running from the scene, when Khattak talks to him his account is very different.
“You may not know what’s been happening in San-Isadore, but you must know what it’s been like here in Québec. An attack like this was only a matter of time.”
Isabelle Clement is press liaison for the Quebec Premier, they want this case solved to the satisfaction of the community that’s why Khattak and the CPS have been brought in. The more draconian Charter of Values was not passed by the state parliament but there is a ban on wearing outward signs of your religion when interacting with state services. Tensions between communities are festering.
Khattak’s old friend Alizah lives in San-Isadore and she explains what it’s like for the Muslim Association at the university, it has been broken, there’s a history of intimidation. A local fascist organisation, The Wolf Allegiance, is probably responsible. Their leader Maxime Thibault says that; ‘vandalism is not for those gifted with vision’. Could the priest be the killer, Duchon, the racist Wolf Alliance? As Khattak and Getty get into the case the things they uncover are more and more disturbing, deep underlying issues of corruption, racism, abuse of office reveal that this town is toxic.
This is an exploration of Islamist radicalisation and right wing extremism through the case but also in the social media, news coverage, and fake news surrounding events. Élise Doucet, blogger, insist that responsible immigration is not racist, but Canada can’t care for own let alone foreign immigrants. When one voice in a chat room questions how the shooter got hold of an AR-15, this is one of the replies:
“French kisser: who cares so long as they’re used to fight Islam.”
One rumour says that there are four or five dead at the mosque as rumours abound Flayalltheplayers says:
As well as the obvious elements of the investigation A Deadly Divide continues the unfolding the story of khattak’s love life. For Getty it’s about being attracted to a colleague, Lemaire, but not being sure she can trust him or his investigation. Khan’s characters are complex, Khattak and Getty are, in many ways, opposites but they reveal a common humanity, conveying a sense of what unites us more than divides us, as they are tested to the limit by the investigation.
Of course this is fiction, but fiction can help us to explore tough, divisive issues in society and that is what this thought provoking novel does. Khan loves to get stuck into challenging topics and major news stories.
To repeat something I said in my review of No Place of Refuge (2019), available on NB Magazine, I don’t just enjoy the Khattak and Getty thrillers, I admire their breadth, their ambition and, most of all, their compassion. This is a novel very much in the moment and I can’t think of a more apt theme for a thriller. Of course, each country has its own particular issues, Brexit in Britain for example, but this novel reflects on the psyche of every nation, how we see ourselves and how others see us. A Deadly Divide holds a mirror up to society, the good and bad and the down right tragic. This is not a polemic, however, it’s a damn fine thriller, as good as the first four in the series and together they represent a fine body of work with a unique flavour.
I’ll be happy if this series goes on and on if this standard is maintained.
Paul Burke 5/5*
A Deadly Divide by Ausma Zehanat Khan
9780857303547 No Exit Press Paperback February 20