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book review

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  • Title: A Deadly Divide
  • Author: Ausma Zehanat Khan
  • Genre: Crime
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books
  • Pages: 370 pages

“Sometimes the monsters we fear aren’t on the opposite side.” Inspector Esa Khattak, one-half of the Community Policing detective duo in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s series of crime novels, utters this line to his partner, Sergeant Rachel Getty. He says this to Rachel for a specific reason: a mass shooting in a mosque located in a small town just over the border where Ottawa meets Gatineau Park, one that will cause untold personal, political and professional complications for the both of them. But that line sums up what crime fiction does best: blurring the edges between strictly defined vantage points in order to reckon with the human cost of murder.

Khan has established herself, four years into her career as a published writer, as one of the genre’s most thoughtful practitioners. Khattak and Getty, first introduced in The Unquiet Dead (2015) and now on their fifth outing, are cast from the detective mould where they must face the abyss that is staring back at them. Their personal and professional relationship deepens as the cases they grapple with illuminate larger issues, be they Balkan war crimes, homegrown terrorists, political imprisonment, refugee crises, and, in A Deadly Divide, far-right nationalism.

The mosque shooting, as Khan indicates in an accompanying author’s note, is loosely based on the shooting in Quebec City in January, 2017, in which six people were killed. The one in A Deadly Divide leads to the death of a dozen, injuries to scores more, and causes all manner of fear and confusion. A young Muslim man present at the scene is taken in for questioning and is initially believed to be the culprit – with some in law enforcement stubbornly clinging to that belief despite a lack of physical evidence. A French-language radio host further fans the flames with right-wing rhetoric and anti-Muslim epithets, as does an online hate group known as the Wolf Allegiance.

The French-Canadian idea of pure laine turns out to be more universal in the ugliest possible manner, as Khattak and Getty discover. With great intelligence and sensitivity, Khan portrays the ease of online radicalization and the ways in which ideological divides cement into far more violent ones. “You think you know the devil, then you realize you don’t until you see the proof of his work,” ruminates a local priest who witnesses the mass shooting, standing in for anyone who might fall into the trap of looking for villainy among the “other” without understanding how it can exist even within those closest to you.

A Deadly Divide, as with Khan’s previous novels, expands the Canadian crime fiction palette because it presents a world where crime-solving is part of deeper and more substantive global issues. It’s a piece of fiction that manages to tell a truth even non-fiction has had trouble communicating. Khattak and Getty aren’t world savers; sometimes they can barely save themselves. But each step they take to right wrongs and to help people is a step in much need. They, as detectives, have grown and changed a great deal over five books.

Khan – with a PhD in international human rights law, expertise in the Balkan crisis, and teaching posts at Chicago’s Northwestern University and York University in Toronto – has the confidence and authority to reckon with these larger issues. Her broader-scope explorations, however, do not transform A Deadly Divide into a “message” novel and do not detract from the primary aim of storytelling. Character remains key, which is why A Deadly Divide rightly devotes plenty of space to Khattak’s struggle to be a good partner – in policing, with Getty, and in life, with his long-distance love for former prosecutor Sehr Ghilzai – and to Getty’s reticence in trusting other people.

This dynamic plays out in a tense scene between the two detectives, when Khattak admits to feeling failure, and Getty expresses fear at his possible abandonment. Here, as in the rest of the novel, Khan portrays the depth of feeling and friendship between her two main characters, and why readers have come to care about them so much.

A Deadly Divide leaves Inspector Khattak and Sergeant Getty at a critical juncture. Old wounds are reopened, and some will heal. Love, in many forms, yields happiness for some and heartbreak for others. A recurring motif of surveillance and stalking, one that adds an extra layer of dread and suspense to the novel, is tantalizingly unresolved.

Still, I can’t help but think Khan has barely scratched the surface of what her series can accomplish. There’s so much room for Khattak and Getty to grow, as detectives, and especially as complicated human beings. No doubt Khan will continue to explore, to paraphrase Inspector Khattak, how the enemy who smiles at you as they plot in the dark are the most dangerous ones of all.

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