The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanet Khan

Review published on August 4, 2018.

The Unquiet Dead, published last year, was an outstanding debut, so my expectations were high for this follow up novel. I was not disappointed, Language of Secrets, the second in the Khattak/Getty series, is a clever police procedural with depth and personality. I’m very glad to say there are at least two more novels and a novella to follow in the series. The main theme is terrorism, Islamic extremism, but this is a three-dimensional analysis of the problem within society. Khan looks at the complex socio-economic, political, and religious issues that underlie the out real of extremism and attitudes in “the war on terror”. These themes sit very well within the framework of a credible and exciting thriller. The hunt for a killer among people who have other reasons for keeping secrets. The Canadian setting illustrates the universal nature of the story.

The Algonquin backcountry, Canada. Mohsin Dar is dying, bleeding out in the snow, the men around him retreat from the scene, no one is calling an ambulance – nothing can interfere with the Nakba. Questions are going to be asked about the dead man, was he an undercover agent doing his job? Or had he come under the spell of Hassan Ashkouri, the charismatic leader of the terrorist cell?

Esa Khattak, head of the Community Policing Section, is brought on board a big terrorism case by Martine Killiam, Superintendent in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. When Khattak finds out the dead man at the heart of the investigation is his old friend Mohsin Dar, he is surprised, the two fell out when Khattak joined the police way back. Khattak is to run interference on the terror plot, Dar’s father has a radio show and he wants blood, but no one wants him queering the investigation so Khattak has to act like it’s a standard murder case. Meanwhile, the real investigation into the terrorists cell and the New Year Nakba is conducted by an old colleague of Khattak’s, Ciprian Coals (who is, to complicate things, his ex-girlfriend). Khattak puts Sgt. Rachel Getty undercover in the mosque they believe the terror cell worship at. To further complicate things, Coals informs Khattak that his sister is seeing the suspected leader of the plot, Hassan Ashkouri. Naturally, Khattak and Getty wind up at the heart of the action.

There are several really strong characters in the novel. Khattak, a Muslim officer, is complex and conflicted but he wants to do his job the right way. He runs the risk of being mistrusted by both the community he works in and some of his colleagues. His relationship with Mohsin and his sister place him in a very difficult place at times. A man caught between worlds. Because the novel deals with the psychology of extremism the well developed characters really matter.

The best police procedurals are able to create a credible office dynamic and the relationships between people in Language of Secrets are fascinating. Ranging from racism, jealousy and ambition to respect and loyalty, the machinations within the investigation add to the excitement all through the novel.

Language of Secrets is a nuanced and intelligent thriller. It’s themes are loyalty and betrayal. While recognising that there is a problem in Canada with extremism, as anywhere in the world, it isn’t the thing that defines any community of nation. Khan is saying more unites humanity (the desire to live safely, the common tragedy/joy) than separates it. Nothing gets solved by irrational thinking and two-dimensional views.

Much of the action in the novel takes place in Toronto but it ends where it begins in the backcountry of Algonquin, not everyone comes out unscathed and the enemies are not all in one camp. An engaging, haunting story.

Paul Burke 4/4

The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanet Khan
No Exit Press 9780857301444 pbk Jul 2018

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