Book Reviews

The Language of Secrets, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

You may have seen much Twitter chatter going on this last week around ‘The Hunt for Read October’ campaign launched by No Exit Press. In celebration of their 30th anniversary as an independent publisher of Crime Friction, they have released 6 ebooks over 6 days. Today, the Hunt finishes with an absolute gem of a book, The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan.

 Language of Secrets cover

Detective Esa Khattak heads up Canada’s Community Policing Section, which handles minority-sensitive cases across all levels of law enforcement. Khattak is still under scrutiny for his last case, so he’s surprised when INSET, Canada’s national security team, calls him in on another politically sensitive issue. For months, INSET has been investigating a local terrorist cell which is planning an attack on New Year’s Day but their undercover informant, Mohsin Dar, has been murdered. Khattak used to know Mohsin, and he can’t let this murder slide, so he sends his partner, Detective Rachel Getty, undercover into the unsuspecting mosque which houses the terrorist cell. As Rachel tentatively reaches out into the unfamiliar world of Islam, and begins developing relationships with the people of the mosque and the terrorist cell within it, the potential reasons for Mohsin’s murder only seem to multiply, from the political and ideological to the intensely personal.

The Unquiet Dead author Ausma Zehanat Khan once again dazzles with a brilliant mystery woven into a profound and intimate story of humanity.


If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you might have have previously heard me waxing lyrical about The Unquiet Dead, the first book in the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series which was released in the UK earlier this year. Well, I am delighted to say that I found The Language of Secrets just as intriguing and gut-wrenching. The subject matter could barely be more polemical in light of the terror attacks which have taken place across the globe in recent years.

Khattak is brought in to support The Royal Canadian Mounted Police with an ongoing investigation, which Khattak’s once close friend, Mohsin Dar, was an integral part of. Kept in the dark with various aspects of the investigation, he sends Rachel undercover to the Nur mosque, which the RCMP believe the terror cell is operating from. Infiltrating herself among the group, she and Khattak begin to piece together the puzzle that has left one man dead and has the potential to harm many more.

There is a beautiful quote within an exchange between Khattak and Andy Dar, Mohsin’s father, which sums up the state of play between cultures the world over:

“Khattak marvelled at the irony of Dar’s choice of language, an irony that Dar little suspected, cultures bleeding into each other, leaving graceful, irretrievable traces of themselves.”

Religion and culture are a big part of the book. As is her trademark, Khan weaves intricate details through the story, giving a rounded understanding of Muslim culture as opposed to limiting the story to the terror cell plot. As Rachel learns more through her time at the mosque, so does the reader. I feel like every one of Khan’s books will be a little bit of a history lesson alongside the fiction, as she talks about the history of the current political turmoil.

‘This was the missing context for the spreading scourge of enmity and hate, the broken and sprawling politics of the Middle East.’

The distinction is highlighted between the minimal percentage of those who create conflict, and those who live normal lives in their community. Conflict features heavily throughout the book, both internal and external to the main characters. Alongside the obvious storyline of the terror cell and the battle between the members of the cell and the authorities; we have various other strands. The contrast and tension between Esa and his sister, Rukshanda; runs through the book, along with a professional (or in Coale’s case, very much personal) conflict between Esa and Cirprian Coale, the officer in charge of running the RCMP operation.

 ‘And there it was, beneath the words. The slow-burning resentment that Khattak had been the one to leap ahead, leaving Coale behind, until Coale’s own promotion had come through much later.’

The reader is given an official introduction to Khattak’s sister, Rukshanda – I character who, I must admit, I found extremely unlikeable; ever more so as the book progressed. She seems to be a complete foil to Esa’s character: self-centred and petty; and invoking Khattak’s dead wife through pointed comments. However; her impulsive actions do identify a certain similarity between Esa and herself.

Esa Khattak finds himself torn at various points throughout A Language of Secrets, pulled between wanting to do what he is contractually bound to do; and wanting to do what is right. Other characters are pulled into this inner battle and we once again see Rachel as a voice of reason, while also wondering ‘…if she would ever understand the complex nature of Esa Khattak’s identity.’

Rachel goes through a big change in this book, as we see her finally free of the family home, volatile father and emotionally absent mother. A weight almost lifts off the reader’s shoulders as we watch her settle into her new life, and make her way through her first undercover investigation.

Khan writes with authority and grace, and provides author’s notes at the end of the book on Terrorism and Islam, and the Toronto 18; upon which the story is loosely based. In my opinion, another triumph from a fabulous author.


About the Author 


Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author of The Unquiet Dead which won the Barry Award, the Arthur Ellis Award and the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Best First Novel.

A frequent lecturer and commentator, Ms. Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a research specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. Ms. Khan completed her LL.B. and LL.M. at the University of Ottawa, and her B.A. in English Literature & Sociology at the University of Toronto.

Formerly, she served as Editor in Chief of Muslim Girl magazine. The first magazine to address a target audience of young Muslim women, Muslim Girl re-shaped the conversation about Muslim women in North America. The magazine was the subject of two documentaries, and hundreds of national and international profiles and interviews, including CNN International, Current TV, and Al Jazeera “Everywoman”.

Ausma Zehanat Khan practiced immigration law in Toronto and has taught international human rights law at Northwestern University, as well as human rights and business law at York University. She is a long-time community activist and writer, and currently lives in Colorado with her husband.



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