Against the Dumbing Down

 The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. (Why I Write—George Orwell)

Knowing that we’re in for seeing plenty of old white guys in the news over the next four years, I’m inspired to go off-topic a little and talk about a crime writer who represents exactly the kind of talent I wouldn’t want to see discouraged, exactly the kind of talent we might not find out about in the monochromatic, single-gender, WASP, and uncritically-certain-of-itself political world we’re trending toward, this next little while.

Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author of The Unquiet Dead, published by St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books, and The Language of Secrets. the-language-of-secrets-cover_1_origShe holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law and practiced immigration law in Toronto before turning to fiction full time. She’s not from Maine ( 😉 ) but her characters are Canadian and the books in the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series are set in Toronto.

The Language of Secrets is the second book in the series for Muslim detective Esa Khattak, who heads up Canada’s Community Policing Section. This division of the force handles all cases involving minorities throughout the country. In this story, Khattak is called in to investigate the murder of a Canadian government informant embedded in a local terrorist cell, a short time before the cell’s planned attack. The terrorist-fighting arm of the Canadian government’s desire to thwart the attack is at odds with Khattak solving the murder too quickly and that tension creates a suspenseful timeline for the novel

What is as wonderful about the book as its taut and crackling plot, though, is how empathetically Khan describes the stresses and relationships of the characters—the bureaucratic distrust of a Muslim police officer, the distrust of civilian Muslims of a police officer investigating other Muslims, the mentor relationship between Khattak and his deputy Rachel Getty. It’s as fine a crime novel as one from Tana French or Denise Mina.

What was more important to me as a reader, though, was the sense that I had of Khan’s deep empathy with her characters’ issues, making me feel their lives, their stresses, their confusions. I’m going to tread onto the thin ice of politics and art here because the conventional wisdom is that they do not mix, that what we are most obliged to do as crime writers is give our readers a good story, an escape from everyday life. Many of our readers might prefer us to remain purely entertainers. But the best of any fiction is the inspection and treatment of characters in all their contexts: social, cultural, political. What would we know of the world without work like Peter Robinson’s treatment of the 1984 Miners’ Strike in England in Children of the Revolution children-of-the-revolutionor of apartheid-era South Africa without the crime novels of James McClure like The Steam Pig?


Polemic, of course, is useless in fiction, as in any other art, but the practice of taking a stand, something we may be out of practice doing, is not. Especially if it’s a stand in favor of the complexity of people, their native decency, an understanding of how people unlike our familiars live, thrive, and fail. We need to understand and convey how characters of different genders, cultures, countries, appearances, and experiences live in their worlds. Of course we need to tell the kinds of stories that draw readers in and compel them. But our characters carry them.

So this is one way we fight as writers, against the dumbing down of the world, the reduction of people to stereotypes and pat phrases. We show understanding, even love, to all of our characters, even the villains; we fight against the tendency to let even the most minor of them lie flat or display stereotypical appearances, words, or actions. orwell

We diminish our power (what power we have) if we don’t understand our characters and write as deeply and powerfully as we can about their uniqueness. Of course in doing that, we risk exposing ourselves, our own values, our hearts, our prejudices. But we will need this kind of honesty going forward, dear friends, as much as we ever have. We are not, I hope, only here to entertain.

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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