‘Blackwater Falls’ is a whodunit that goes below the surface

To solve the mystery of refugee killings in a small Colorado town, a female Muslim detective must look beneath appearances in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s fresh, urgent, and rousing novel. 

"Blackwater Falls: A Thriller," by Ausma Zehanat Khan, Minotaur Books, 400 pp.

Well into Ausma Zehanat Khan’s new novel, “Blackwater Falls,” police Detective Inaya Rahman and her partner Catalina “Cat” Hernandez confront a motorcycle gang threatening an immigrant family’s home. The scene is taut; violence looms. Yet a mixture of smart questions, calm resistance, and help from a surprising source eases the standoff.

It’s a compelling moment that reflects the tone and time of Khan’s gripping story. The setting is the present; the place is a mountain burg called Blackwater Falls, Colorado, where an influx of newcomers from the Middle East and Africa stake their claim within the largely white, but diversifying, community. In the town’s wealthy enclaves and picturesque downtown, cultures mix and often miss, emotions blaze hot, and assumptions run rampant. How welcome, then, to have Khan at the narrative rudder. A practiced mystery writer, as well as the former editor-in-chief of Muslim Girl magazine, she delivers a top-notch page turner that navigates the complex identities, conflicting allegiances, and shifting traditions of our modern world.

Inaya, a member of the Community Response Unit of the Denver Police Department, is a principled investigator in love with her job despite a traumatic incident early in her career. She’s also a devout Muslim, nearly 30, and the eldest of three girls who remains, much to her devoted parents’ distress, unmarried.

The novel opens with a gruesome, but bloodless, murder. A girl’s body – neatly dressed and carefully posed – has been hung on the door of the town’s mosque in a position akin to a crucifixion. Inaya recognizes her immediately; she’s Razan Elkader, the teenage daughter of a Syrian refugee family. The distressing scene, including the conspicuous absence of Razan’s customary hijab, causes Inaya to faint, which prompts derision (plus several sexist, racist jabs) from the local sheriff and his men. 

Lt. Waqas Seif, Inaya’s hard-to-read superior, seems to offer scant support. “You live here, don’t you have any insights?” he probes. When Inaya asserts that the killing is obviously a hate crime, Seif pushes: “Get out there. Make your own observations.” It’s one of the book’s many key themes – the need to think and look deeply, rather than accept the slim satisfactions of face value.

The investigation quickly hits snags. Inaya and her team discover this isn’t the first attack on recent arrivals; months earlier two Somali girls went missing and the case was suspiciously closed. An influential and inflammatory anti-Islamic pastor must be questioned, and the racist sheriff – a pugnacious, sneering force – is clearly involved. 

As “Blackwater Falls” twists and turns with the revelations and setbacks typical of the genre, Khan takes pains to allow the edges, doubts, contradictions, and complexity of many of her characters to surface. Relying on backstory, flashbacks, unvoiced worries, and telling gestures, she emphasizes that the roles individuals play – detective, student, biker, businesswoman – mask a roiling ocean of individuality. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s a refreshing reminder, especially in the context of Muslim and refugee characters, who continue to receive short shrift in American pop culture. 

Lieutenant Seif is one such robust character. He’s a Palestinian Iranian who’s raised his two younger brothers – now in their 20s – since the death of their parents. He’s climbed the professional ranks through hard work and, he increasingly fears, a reliance on code-switching and his racial ambiguity. As the story progresses, Lieutenant Seif is both alarmed by and drawn to Inaya’s open expressions of faith, love for family, and pride in her Afghan Pakistani background. 

The novel speeds to an exciting conclusion as it weaves in a slew of au courant topics, including school bullying, doxxing, worker intimidation, and vigilante tactics versus activism and protest. It’s a lot to juggle, but Khan nimbly balances her many messages and messengers. 

“You may have fought your battles, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been fighting ours,” challenges Cat during a confrontation with a hard-charging civil rights lawyer invested in the case. It’s yet another call for individuals to resist the urge to judge based on minimal interactions and surface impressions. Inaya and her colleagues certainly can’t afford to do so as they track down the guilty – and crack open the truth – in Khan’s fresh, urgent, and rousing “Blackwater Falls.”

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