Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Blackwater Falls (Minotaur, Nov.) is a “stunning series launch,” per PW’s starred review, that follows Det. Inaya Rahman as she investigates the murder of a teenage Syrian refugee whose body is found nailed to a mosque door in the small town of Blackwater Falls, Colo. When compromised colleagues and racial tensions complicate the investigation, Rahman must figure out whom she can trust as she hunts the killer. Khan spoke with PW about unlikely pairings, crime fiction’s portrayal of law enforcement, and the isolation of small-town life.

Rahman is a woman of color with a bird’s-eye view of the racial dynamics in police activity. Was it a challenge to have her walk that line?

Definitely. I proposed the series thinking those tensions could be reconciled through the dignity of my characters, but I quickly realized that approach wouldn’t do justice to the big questions about policing that we’re facing today. So striking the right balance on the page and refusing to accept easy answers was one of the most challenging tasks. Any time I was tempted to put a halo on Inaya or fellow detective Cat, I brought the thoroughly corrupt sheriff to the forefront of my story.

How does the town’s character influence the way the mystery unfolds?

Blackwater Falls is a small, tight-knit Colorado backcountry community with a quite obvious racial divide and a sheriff’s department that’s used to acting with unchecked power, almost like a private fiefdom. It feels claustrophobic, where all the characters know each other and the discovery of the killer is more devastating, as a result.

How did you approach writing about a town as tight-knit as Blackwater Falls?

For me, developing the various communities in Blackwater Falls reflected a great deal of my own upbringing—the multicultural, multiracial communities I grew up in— so it was like coming home. This series is also very much about solidarity, the ways in which we build it or betray it. Solidarity can’t be assumed. It has to be built. Writing Blackwater Falls was part of that process.

Are there conventions of detective fiction you wanted to subvert?

The trope of “hero cop as good guy.” Often crime writers—and readers—begin with the idea that detectives are people you can trust to do right and to have a moral code. Det. Inaya Rahman has clear internal conflicts as a police officer that are exacerbated when she faces down Blackwater’s sheriff as a woman of color partnered with another woman of color. So Blackwater Falls is really in conversation with how we’ve treated policing in crime fiction.

Was there a character dynamic you were particularly excited to explore?

I happily confess I have always loved romantic tension between a pair of lead detectives. In my former crime series, the love lives of my detectives were quite mysterious and tortured, but with Blackwater Falls, I was excited to put together a very unlikely pairing in the form of a detective whose faith and skin color have made her a target, and her supervising lieutenant, a man who is as hostile to his own culture and heritage as it’s possible to be. That was great fun to write.

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