Blackwater Falls – Ausma Zehanat Khan

Blackwater Falls is the first in a new series featuring Inaya Rahman, a police detective, and her boss, Lt. Waqas “Qas” Seif. They officers from the Denver Police Department’s Community Response Unit, assigned to take over a murder investigation in Blackwater Falls, Colorado. This is the first time they have worked closely together. The CSU is assigned to take this case over from Sheriff Grant, who has been the subject of ongoing complaints of harassment against the local refugee community. Among other things, we quickly learn that he minimized and ignored reports that several teenaged girls from that community, two dark skinned Somali girls and one light skinned Syrian girl, all Muslim have gone missing, suggesting they ran away from repressive parents. Except, now Razan, the Syrian girl, has been found, nailed, as if she were crucified, to the door of a local Mosque, wearing clothing intended to make her look like an artist’s version of the Virgin Mary. Who killed her and why?

Razan’s father worked at the local meat cutting plant, where he was injured and let go without compensation. Is there a connection? Razan received and served out a prestigious internship at a government contractor firm that is engaged in top secret work. Some people resented that the internship did not go to a popular white boy. A local Evangelical church whose preacher rails against the ungodliness of Muslims and the area’s immigrant/refugee population draws attention, in particular since some of its members make up a “social” motorcycle club, the Disciples, who can be menacing at a minimum.

There are more potential suspects, but in putting together the Blackwater Falls Community, Khan created both built in conflict and suspicion that reflects some broader perspectives in the US about police, about Muslims, about anti-immigration zealots, about women and about certain types of religious congregations with strong social and political views. Khan avoids stereotyping, highlighting nuances among members of all of these groups, creating individuals with varied backstories, ethnicities, cultures and perspectives. She does this seemingly effortlessly, managing to explain/demonstrate the ridiculousness and danger of stereotyping in the course of her writing.

Blackwater Falls gives us sweet and humorous glimpses of Rahman’s family life. Her father is a criminal defense lawyer. Her mother is a homemaker, eager to marry off her eldest daughter. One is Afghan, one Pakistani. Seif, too, is obviously from a Muslim background, but he resists Iyana’s comments that might lead to a discussion of his origins. We learn at some point that his parents are dead and that one was Palestinian and one Iranian. There are hints of attraction between Seif, who is not observant and Inaya who is very observant, but more often, we see the conflicts in their approach to their work and their colleagues. There are some terrific female friendships and parent-child relationships and lots of appealing characters.

The mystery is well plotted and Khan is a wonderful writer, never clumsy and always interesting, This was a highly entertaining read and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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