This is the third Khattak and Getty novel and this series just gets better and better, which is quite an achievement because Khan hit the ground running with her original and accomplished opener, The Unquiet Dead, and followed that with a stunning second novel, The Language of Secrets. Among the Ruins raises the bar with a tale of betrayal, greed and courage set in Iran. The idea of a covert investigation into the extrajudicial murder of an activist under the surveillance of a totalitarian religious state is bold but it is brilliantly realised.
This is exactly what I want from modern noir fiction; a thought-provoking premise intelligently explored within the context of an exciting and twisty mystery. There is so much to admire in Khan’s writing, much of which goes beyond the usual scope of an ordinary crime novel. This is crime fiction that shines a light on some of the divisions in the modern world and offers a more compassionate understanding of race and religion and what motivates people. Among the Ruins is a superior police procedural, all the elements are here. Khattak and Getty, Canadian police officers, make a fascinating pair, even when separated by thousands of miles, (Getty in Canada, Khattak in Iran) – they are strong complex characters. The plot is layered and constantly demands that you rethink the assumptions you make. Khan is a natural storyteller and this is a thoroughly engrossing novel. Khattak is inveigled into investigating a brutal murder while he is on holiday in Iran, the who and the why seem obvious, but there is far more to this brutal crime than meets the eye. Underpinning the thriller is the issue of human rights in Iran, this is a story of extraordinary bravery in the face of terror. The contrast between the old world beauty of the country, the spirit of the people and the constant surveillance, censorship and brutality of the regime is stark and affecting.
The continuity between the three novels is seamless, character arcs and on-going elements of the story are riveting, that is not unusual. However, there is something more with these novels, they have that sense of unity of purpose about them that makes the whole more than the sum of the parts. A homogeneity of theme and compassion, the energy and drive elevates the novels, this is a series that resonate. It’s not that each of the novels can’t be read as standalones, they can, but Khan has set out to explore important issues through her crime stories and you get a sense of the wider picture from reading all three novels (and happily there are more to come!). Few writers produce a series that has such a sense of purpose. Tackling big themes has become her raison d’etre. The plight of Zahra Sobhani in the novel mirrors that of Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who was murdered in Iran in 2003. The issues of cultural and religious difference are handled in a grown up way, nuanced and three dimensional. Before I get too carried away, Among the Ruins is very readable, there’s a classic thread to the novel that will be appealing to heist fans for example.
Among the Ruins opens with Esa Khattak, a Muslim police officer with dual Canadian and Pakistani nationality, suffering the fallout from the Drayton case. Despite the fact that his actions saved the department from further public embarrassment, Khattak shot a suspect and is now on administrative leave. Using his Pakistani passport, Khattak visits Esfahan, in Iran. He receives a package of letters, apparently written inside the notorious Evin prison, these letters are disturbing and potentially very dangerous. Khattak visits the town of Varzareh where he is contacted by a woman introducing herself as Helen Swan, known as Touka, she has a mission for Khattak. She claims to be a Canadian businesswoman, although there is no trading relationship between the two nations. Is she Canadian intelligence? Touka wants Khattak to look into the murder of a Canadian/Iranian film maker, Zahra Sobhani. Khattak knows of Sobhani by reputation, she was fated after her documentary A Requiem for Hope won international awards. It was an exposé of the abuse involved in the 2009 elections in Iran; detailing state coercion, the blocking of candidates and the oppression of the opposition, including the murder of students and the brutal torture of protesters at Evin prison. Sobhani had returned to Iran for a follow up film on Evin, she was welcomed by the authorities unaware of her intention. Sobhani slipped her minders and visited the prison, she was photographing outside when she is bundled into a car. Sobhani is raped, tortured and murdered. Touka says that she wants proof that the Intelligence and Security Minister, Bursam Radan, was personally involved in killing Zahra Sobhani. She tells Khattak that public pressure could bring him down striking a blow to the Iranian repression of its citizens. Khattak seeks Rachel Getty’s help back in Canada. Sobhani’s daughter-in-law is in Evin prison, but can Roxane’s family be trusted? Who sent the letters? Is Touka a true ally?
The story of the victims of Evin prison is revealed in letters that punctuate the story, they are simple, poignant, and heart-breaking. Full of love and hope despite torture and suffering. They will haunt you:
“…They claim many of us commit suicide, either in prison or on the way to the hospital…”
Among the Ruins is an intelligent and heart felt literary thriller. I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in a nuanced and perceptive view of the modern world.
Paul Burke 5/5
Among the Ruins by Ausma Zehanat Khan
No Exit Press 9780857301956 pbk Jan 2019