In two powerful new mysteries, racism swirls around missing girls – Sun Sentinel

‘Jackal’ by Erin E. Adams. Bantam, 336 pages, $27

Haitian-American author Erin E. Adams hits the ground running in “Jackal,” her devastatingly powerful debut that delves into racism, classism, small-town angst, and friendship in a tightly focused mystery.

Even when “Jackal” veers into the realm of the paranormal, Adams keeps the story believable as it leads to its natural finale.

Haitian-American Liz Rocher reluctantly returns to her hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where she and her mother were one of the few black families living in the most upscale and largely white neighborhoods. It’s because his mother was a doctor and worked hard as an ER doctor to gain some status.

Liz is back for the wedding of her best friend, Mel Parker, who is white. While Mel’s racist family despise her fiancé, Garrett, for being black, they love the couple’s 9-year-old daughter, Caroline. The Parkers also tolerate Liz because they believe she is not like the “other” black people in town.

When a black child goes missing at the wedding reception, Liz remembers that another black girl went missing in the nearby woods when she was a teenager. While helping in the search for the newly missing child, Liz discovers that other black girls have gone missing over the past two decades and the police have done little to find them.

Adams steps up the dread factor as Liz deals with the disturbing woods, her anxiety about being home, and dealing with racism, both overt and subtle. Some people, Liz knows, say they don’t “see color”. But “the truth”, says Liz, “being blind to color only makes you blind”. Adams also makes “Jackal” a journey of self-discovery as Liz learns to trust her instincts and find her “truth.”

Expert plotting paired with multi-layered characters make “Jackal” a standout.

Novelist Ausma Zehanat Khan is launching a new detective series with "Black Water Falls."

‘Blackwater Falls’ by Ausma Zehanat Khan. Minotaur, 368 pages, $27

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The challenges of policing a refugee and minority community living in fear, shrouded in prejudice, are the challenges of the Denver Police Department’s Community Response Unit, the focus of this new series of the critically acclaimed author Ausma Zehanat Khan. As she did in her Esa Khattak series, Khan explores a vulnerable community of outsiders who find their strength in the ties of family and religion in the remarkable “Blackwater Falls”.

Khan’s new series focuses on detective Inaya Rahman, a Muslim woman – “too brown for the badge, too blue for her co-religionists” – who moved to Denver six months prior. Tenacious, shrewd and opinionated, Inaya is adamant in her opinions on how an investigation should be conducted involving vulnerable and minority groups, and she is not afraid to stand up to fanatics and criminals.

"black waterfalls," by Ausma Zehanat Khan.

Inaya also doesn’t back down when it comes to her boss, Lt. Waqas Seif. The small police team is tasked with the murder of a Syrian teenager found in a mosque in the nearby town of Blackwater Falls. Inaya knows the mosque well – it’s where she and her family pray – and knows how members were targeted by an anti-Muslim evangelical church and a powerful sheriff who makes no secret of his dislike of minorities.

Inaya discovers the fact that two Somali girls are also missing but the sheriff refused to investigate, saying they were runaways despite their families’ concern. Inaya finds support from activist-lawyer Areesha Adams and criminal psychologist Catalina Hernandez, but her countless run-ins with Waqas have her wondering which side her boss is on.

Khan’s focus on the vagaries of community elevates ‘Blackwater Falls’ as it shows various aspects of refugee life. Inaya is a fascinating character whose role as a police detective often clashes with her mother’s expectations of her.

“Blackwater Falls” is the start of what should be a long series.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at

Alycia R. Lindley