The Khattak and Getty novels are a perfect example of why good crime fiction matters. This book, like the others in the series, gets right to the heart of an important contemporary theme – the global refugee crisis. No Place of Refuge, the latest in the Canadian crime series to be published in the UK, is an intriguing murder mystery that captures the Zeitgeist. This is an intelligent police procedural, that plays with the established boundaries of borders and jurisdiction, confronting a major humanitarian concern that has implications for all societies. This story stretches from Syria to Canada with stops in Greece, Turkey, France and the Netherlands along the way.
This subject was never more urgent than it is now because of the sheer scale of the problem. The fact that Khan puts it front and centre in this thought-provoking crime novel once again demonstrates how she is determined to tackle the tough stuff, using major news stories as background for her cases.
I don’t just enjoy the Khattak and Getty thrillers, I admire the breadth of their ambition and the scope of 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 current catastrophe reflects on the psyche of every nation, how we see ourselves and how others see us. How each nation deals with the crisis is a measure of the humanity of governments and peoples across the world. Khan’s willingness to tackle the nuttiest socio-political issues of our time, one after another, in her novels is her USP. No Place of Refuge 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 three in the series and together they represent a fine body of work with a unique flavour.
“Aid workers a warning of a humanitarian catastrophe on the Greek island of Lesbos as it struggles to deal with many asylum seekers desperate to reach Europe.” [Helena Smith, The Guardian, 18/9/19]
Eftalou beach, Lesvos, Greece. Ali is sitting on the beach waiting for the next refugee boat to arrive, he’s waiting for Israa. He sees Audrey approaching from ‘Afghan Hill’, the refugee camp overcrowded with the “lucky” survivors of the Mediterranean crossing from Africa. Audrey passes a sign that reads in Dari: “May God be your protector”
Audrey manages Woman to Woman, an NGO helping the Canadian government implement a scheme to bring in refugees from war torn Syria. Ali is her unofficial interpreter, he dreams of a new life in Canada but he stays at the camp, it is a wretched place but it is a necessary evil. A French Interpol agent wants to talk to him at Kara Tepe but Ali will not move until he sees the latest arrivals – sadly, Israa is not on the boat. Eventually Ali walks to Kara Tepe but as he approaches he hears gun shots. There are two bodies on the floor, the Interpol agent and a young refugee. Audrey is running, she is being chased by armed men, when Ali tries to intervene he is knocked down, recovering just in time to see Audrey being bundled into a car and driven off.
Ottawa. Rachel Getty is a little in awe, the Community Policing team have been invited to Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s residence for a celebration dinner. The new Prime Minster, a young and energetic man, is talking to her boss, Esa Khattak. Khattak has recently been exonerated by a parliamentary enquiry into the death of a war criminal during a previous case. He is now back on the job with a commendation on his file and Community Policing’s stock is rising. The PM is advising Khattak that Community Policing now have a direct line to his office to avoid the problems of the past. RCMP boss Martine Killian is in on it too. Then Nathan Clare approaches the small group. The PM in his mellifluous Quebecois accent reminds Khattak that politicians always have an ulterior motive; here comes the reason for the invite. Nathan’s sister Audrey has gone missing on Lesvos, that, somehow, is about to become the remit of Community Policing.
Nathan, is an old friend of Khattak and he knows Audrey well too. She was working on a Canadian resettlement programme for Syrian refugees. Her emails and phone calls stopped a few days ago, then news came of two murders at the Lesvos camp, the Greek police suspect Audrey is involved. The local worker Shukri Danner, a former refugee now Canadian citizen, is already in custody. This could have serious ramifications for Canada and its contribution to the UNHCR programmes. Nathan has already sent Sehr Ghilzai, Woman to Woman’s legal council to help Danner (she’s in love with Khattak, just to complicate matters). Nathan pleads with Khattak and Getty to find Audrey. One last thing, the gun that shot the two people dead belonged to Audrey, Nathan had given it to her for protection. First, Khattak has to talk to his sister Rukhshanda, she was the one who talked Audrey into taking this project on in the first place.
No Place of Refuge is another fast paced thriller set in several locations, all with an authentic feel. The mystery is intriguing and there are twists and bags of excitement to be had. 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.
Khan is a natural storyteller who knows how to engage readers. Each novel can be read as a stand alone, this applies here as much as to the first novel, The Unquiet Dead, and the follow ups: The Language of Secrets and Among the Dead. However, if you read all four books so far there is a connection that makes them a little more special as a whole. The collective is more than the sum of its parts as it were. Few writers have as clear a sense of purpose in tackling big themes, even-handedly and with compassion.
As I have said in the past of the other books, this is a heart felt literary thriller, nuanced and perceptive. Long may Khattak and Getty continue.
Paul Burke 5/5
No Place of Refuge by Ausma Zehanat Khan
No Exit Press 9780857301994 pbk Aug 2019