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Language of Secrets: Zehanat Khan brings back Muslim detective for new novel inspired by Toronto 18 events

Fully-formed characters offer complex look at culture

Khan brings history, poetry, politics to her mystery novel.

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Khan brings history, poetry, politics to her mystery novel.

Every time mystery writer Ausma Zehanat Khan crosses the border, leaving her adopted home of Denver heading back into Canada for a family visit, she is always aware of her status as a Muslim woman. And whenever she turns on the news, especially during this particularly hostile American election, she is reminded how vitriolic public discussion around the Muslim community can be.

“So much of that discourse is very ill-informed and uneducated on issues about what Muslims are about, what the Muslim faith is about. It’s important for me to speak back to that a little bit with my characters and the stories that I’m telling,” Khan says.
“I don’t really consider it an agenda, but it’s my experience that I’m writing about. It’s about what I know, the communities that form my reality and the reality of so many people that I know.”

Khan, who has her Ph.D. in international human-rights law, specializing in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans, drew on her expertise and background for her first novel, The Unquiet Dead (Minotaur Books), a mystery-thriller connected to the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. It was here she introduced her protagonist, the Toronto-based Muslim detective Esa Khattak and his partner, Rachel Getty, a no-nonsense hockey-playing cop who plays the perfect foil to elegantly handsome Khattak.

The detectives return for Khan’s new murder-mystery, The Language of Secrets, which was inspired by another true crime: the arrest of the Toronto 18, an ill-prepared group of terrorists whose plans to bomb Parliament Hill was thwarted by the RCMP and CSIS in 2006.

To prepare for the book, Khan researched Islamic history and politics, jihadist websites and stacks of police materials. She also had in-house help: her husband is an expert on Islam and politics. “He’s a great resource to go to and hear all the different sides of the story,” Khan says.

While jihadist terrorists have become easy go-to villains, Khan believes her books stand out because there are still few fully formed Muslim characters like Khattak to be found, especially within crime-thrillers. The Language of Secrets is also rare in the genre because of the poetry that flows through it. From recitals of classical works to slam poetry nights, it is present throughout her story, which Khan says comes from her upbringing as the daughter of two Pakistani-Canadians who hosted recitals at their house.

Khan’s love of the tradition continued when she attended University of Toronto, and would find herself in the stacks of Robarts Library, looking up titles in translation.
Beyond wanting to celebrate and share Eastern art, Khan had another personal reason for incorporating poetry into a whodunit murder. She says, “If you look at Arab or Persian traditions, you’ll see poetry is very much at their heart. I thought a very beautiful way to temper the ugliness of the jihadist ideology is also to express the beauty of those traditions.”

Sue Carter is the editor at Quill & Quire magazine.