DEBORAH CROMBIE: I'm the first to admit that I am always a little behind the times. But we've been talking about buzz--or is that organic buzz--and authors spreading the word about things they read and love. So let me tell you about Ausma Khan. I had met her at conferences, and we had chatted, and I knew she had recently had her first novel published. I meant to look it up--we are all full of good intentions--but I got derailed. Then, a few months ago, I was in my local B&N with a friend and we were browsing the mystery section. There, on the shelf, was THE UNQUIET DEAD, Ausma's first novel. I read the flap, bought it without a second's more hesitation, took it home and pretty much didn't put the book down until I finished it.
It is stunningly good.
Of course, THE UNQUIET DEAD came out in 2015, so I guess I can't say it was officially my favorite first novel of the last year, but in personal terms it will be the one that goes down in my memory.
Now, Ausma has had a second book out, THE LANGUAGE OF SECRETS, and her third book, AMONG THE RUINS, is out on Valentine's Day. (You may have seen THE LANGUAGE OF SECRETS on my to-read stack. I'm determined to get to it before February 14th, so I'll be ready for the new book.)
Here's Ausma to tell you a little more about her series.
AUSMA KHAN: Thank you so much, Debs, for inviting me to participate, it’s lovely to be here this week!
I’m a relative newcomer to the mystery genre—my third book is just coming out on Valentine’s Day, and I thought it would be fun to introduce my Canadian detectives, Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty, along with the city that produced them.
When you think of intriguing mystery settings, Toronto may not immediately leap to mind. Although we have a full range of seasons, you might be imagining a city blanketed in snow, where the inhabitants are much too cold to think about doing away with each other. I say this slightly tongue-in-cheek, but I’m hoping to change that impression because Toronto is my hometown. It’s the city where I spent my adolescence, went to school, got married, and where I still return to see family several times a year.
For as long as I’ve wanted to write mysteries, I’ve known that I wanted to base them in Toronto. Yes, my hometown is cold, but not as cold as some of the other places I’ve lived. Childhood on the Canadian prairies? Check. Four years in the capital city, Ottawa, where I never actually saw a flower bloom because of the timing of the academic cycle? Check. Two years on the blisteringly cold edge of the lake in Chicago? Also check.
But what Toronto occasionally lacks in weather, it makes up for with multiculturalism, easy-going attitude, a fantastic variety of ethnic food, a world-class arts scene, and the ability to produce two detectives like Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, a pair of Canadian sleuths who get along well together despite their many differences. Esa is cultured, sophisticated and devilishly handsome. Rachel comes from a troubled family with a less privileged background, and has never had anything come easy in her life.
To be honest, I wrote Esa Khattak because I didn’t see a lot of people like me in mystery fiction in lead roles. Inspector Esa Khattak, the head of Community Policing, is the kind of man that a city like Toronto produces. He’s rooted in his Canadian identity, passionately interested in international issues, and conscious of a global connectedness. Esa is a Canadian Muslim who is charged with representing the interests of minority communities in their interactions with law enforcement: he’s someone who can see many perspectives at once, and who may be exposed to racial or religious tensions, but who has no difficulty in reconciling them for himself because he’s comfortable in his own skin, and doesn’t feel out of place. I wanted to write a character who could be East and West and many other things at once, and who could navigate those different worlds without feeling defensive or excluded. And to give it a little more flavor, I wrote Esa as this handsome, desirable man because that’s not typically what we expect when we see a character like him depicted in popular culture.
And then, of course, Esa needed someone to interact with, someone young and lively and passionate about her job, who could be sensitive to Esa and their work without compromising her own convictions. Rachel is a charge-ahead, side-with-the-underdog, highly intuitive detective, who sometimes doubts the same qualities that make her good at her job. She is also an ardent hockey player: the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team may be the greatest love of her life.
Throwing these two characters together was a really fun way for me to bring to light Toronto’s multicultural identity, and to explore the concept of what it means to be Canadian throughout this series of books.
The considerate nature of Esa and Rachel’s interactions with each other is how I balance the darkness of the human rights issues I write about in my mysteries. Through Esa and Rachel’s eyes, it becomes a little easier to look at the costs of war, terrorism, prisoners of conscience, or torture.
Rachel and Esa seem like the right people in the right city to take on difficult subjects. They try to unravel these painful issues to arrive at a place of hope.
QUESTION FOR READERS:
What other mysteries have you read where you think the setting is as important to the book as the characters? What places have you been introduced to through a book that you’d like to visit? For me, Peter May’s ‘The Blackhouse’ trilogy has made me long to visit the Outer Hebrides.
Bouchercon 2017 takes place in Toronto this year! Look for me there, I’d love to meet you in person.
DEBS: Yes, sign up for Bouchercon ASAP. On to-do list! And as much as I already love Toronto, I'm going to view it differently having had the perspective of seeing it through Esa and Rachel's eyes. Here's more about Ausma, and about AMONG THE RUINS:
Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author of the award-winning debut novel The Unquiet Dead, the first in the Khattak/Getty mystery series. Her subsequent novels include the critically acclaimed The Language of Secrets and Among the Ruins. The Khattak/Getty mystery series has been optioned for television by Lionsgate, and Ausma is also the author of a forthcoming fantasy series for Harper Voyager. The Bloodprint, Book One of the Khorasan Archives will be published in October 2017. Ausma holds a Ph.D. in international human rights law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. A British-born Canadian and former adjunct law professor, she now lives in Colorado with her husband.
AMONG THE RUINS
On leave from Canada’s Community Policing department, Esa Khattak is traveling in Iran, reconnecting with his cultural heritage and seeking peace in the country’s beautiful mosques and gardens. But Khattak’s supposed break from work is cut short when he’s approached by a Canadian government agent in Iran, asking him to look into the death of renowned Canadian-Iranian filmmaker Zahra Sobhani. Zahra was murdered at Iran’s notorious Evin prison, where she’d been seeking the release of a well-known political prisoner. Khattak quickly finds himself embroiled in Iran’s tumultuous politics and under surveillance by the regime, but when the trail leads back to Zahra’s family in Canada, Khattak calls on his partner, Detective Rachel Getty, for help.
Rachel uncovers a conspiracy linked to the Shah of Iran and the decades-old murders of a group of Iran’s most famous dissidents. Historic letters, a connection to the Royal Ontario Museum, and a smuggling operation on the Caspian Sea are just some of the threads Rachel and Khattak begin unraveling, while the list of suspects stretches from Tehran to Toronto. But as Khattak gets caught up in the fate of Iran’s political prisoners, Rachel sees through to the heart of the matter: Zahra’s murder may not have been a political crime at all.
DEBS: Ausma will be stopping into chat, so please do stop in and say hello!