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THE LANGUAGE OF SECRETS
by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Minotaur, February 2016
321 pages
$25.99
ISBN: 1250055121


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Following her well-received debut, THE UNQUIET DEAD, Khan continues an intriguing series focused on a Canadian detective of Afghan heritage who heads a federal community policing task force in Toronto created to deal with sensitive cases in a multicultural nation. His experience in both homicide and intelligence work makes him uniquely qualified to investigate the murder of a Muslim man who was working undercover when he traveled with a group to a remote part of a provincial park, apparently to train for a terrorist attack.

Hassan Ashkouri, the leader of an ultra-conservative mosque, has created two cells of adherents who gather together to discuss theology, politics, poetry, and possibly creating mayhem. Among those adherents are a young disaffected Somali-Canadian rapper, his waifish punk girlfriend, and a crabby convert named Paula who is looking for meaning in her life (while being infatuated with the charismatic if scary Ashkouri). Soon they are joined by another young woman exploring Islam Esa Khattak's colleague, Rachel Getty. She has followed the murdered man into the heart of the mosque to find out who killed him and why he had decided to disobey his orders.

The investigation is challenging, but it's made far more difficult as an intelligence official, Ciprian Coale, withholds information and deliberately impedes Khattak's work, thanks to a longstanding grudge and a suspicion that Khattak's religious beliefs make him somehow less Canadian. (Some of the interagency complexity would be easier to grasp by reading the previous book in the series.) To complicate matters, Khattak's strong-willed sister Ruksh has become engaged to Ashkouri, believing him to be a devout and honorable man. Khattak and Getty don't have time to lose. Intercepts indicate that there will be some sort of attack to mark the new year.

Khattak understands the missing context that explains so much of current events: the history of colonialism, the repeated disappointments as democratic movements have been crushed, the subtleties of a religion misrepresented in the news and by Wahhabi-inspired demagogues, inflamed as western societies tilt toward bigotry and right-wing nationalism. While Ashkouri uses poetry a kind of code to conceal his plans, Khattak invokes it when thinking about how complex his world is:

The generations mislaid by decades of war, by centuries of struggle.

The splintered past, the crippled future, nothing to gain, less to give.

A bruised carnation planted in a cup . . .

A knotting of sinews and bone because you were never disconnected from what the ummah suffered, any more than you could understand the madmen who claimed to speak or kill or die in their name.

This mystery, like its hero, is cerebral, but develops tension as time grows short and Rachel's cover grows tattered. Khattak's nuanced understanding of his religion and of the present moment steadies him as he and his partner Rachel strive to serve "a nation of communities, bound together by the things they hold in common."

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, January 2016

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