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AMONG THE RUINS by Ausma Zehanat Khan: Book Review

Esa Khattak, a detective in the Canadian Community Policing Department, is away from his job in Toronto.  He’s making his first visit to Iran, partly as a pilgrimage to his Muslim roots and partly to escape for a while from his recent past.

His previous case led him to kill a man and although the shooting was justified, he was placed on administrative leave.  So here he is in Iran, visiting its many beautiful gardens and mosques, but feeling all the while as if someone is monitoring him, watching his every step.

Then, after three weeks in the country, his feeling is confirmed.  At the guesthouse where he is staying in Esfahan, a package is left for him, a book on the Alborz Mountains with his name inscribed in it.  The owner of the inn tells Esa that he has no idea who left the book on the doorstep, and when Esa opens the book a one-page letter falls out.  “We are bound together, chained,” it reads.

Told by the owner of the guesthouse that he needs a change of scene, Esa takes a bus trip to tour the historic city of Varzaneh, known for its dovecotes and the white chadors that women wear while praying in the city’s mosque.  Sipping a glass of tea in the chaikhaneh (tea house) across from the mosque, Esa becomes aware of a middle-aged woman who obviously has been searching for him.  His feeling was right, someone has been following him.

His “watcher” is Helen Swan, called Touka.  She presents herself as someone who purchases souvenirs for resale but admits she also runs errands for the Canadian government.  She explains that she is speaking on behalf of Zahra Sobhani, a world-renown Iranian/Canadian journalist and filmmaker who returned to her native country after the release of the documentary she filmed about the stolen Iranian election of June 2009.

During her visit, Zahra went to the infamous Evin prison with two objectives:  to obtain the release of her stepdaughter, Roxanne Najafi, an anti-government agitator, and to get photographs and videos of the conditions in the prison.  Days after Zahra was seen at the prison’s entrance, her mutilated corpse was left at her family’s Tehran home.

Touka insists that Esa help in getting proof that Barsam Radam, a senior official at the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, was involved in the murder.  When Esa is resistant, Touka puts on the pressure.  Help us, she says, and we can make some of the problems you’ve had in Toronto following the shooting vanish; don’t help us and we can make things worse for you.

Among the Ruins is the third in the Esa Khattak series, and it is as well written as the two previous ones.  What makes it outstanding is the Iranian setting, with its sense of the many beauties and cultural history of the country as well as its many political upheavals.  You will feel as if you are traveling with Esa as he’s torn between his admiration of the young people who are trying to reform the government and his fears for their lives.

Ausma Zehanat Kahn is an international human rights lawyer and former law professor.  You can read more about her at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.