Cover image of "Blood Betrayal," a novel about the response to police shootings

On a single night, two young men of color die at the hands of white cops in Denver and the adjoining town of Blackwater Falls. One, Mateo Ruiz, a Latino, was studying toward a degree as a metallurgic and materials engineer at the Colorado School of Mines. The other, Duante Young, African American, was a gifted artist heading to art school. Despite the bare facts, the two cases appear quite different. A “middle-of-the-road cop, never amounting to much,” killed Duante in what obviously seems a justified shooting. By contrast, it appears that a young officer shot Mateo in the back. But both cases fall under the jurisdiction of the Denver Police Community Response Unit, since either or both might trigger outrage in their respective communities. And the response to these police shootings is the setup in the second of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Blackwater Falls novels, Blood Betrayal.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Five recurring characters dominate the story

At the heart of Khan’s tales in both books are three women of color. An Afghan-American police detective named Inaya Rahman. Her Latina colleague in the Community Response Unit, Detective Catalina Hernandez. And an African American civil rights attorney in Blackwater Falls, Areesha Adams. Joining them are two men, Lieutenant Waqas Seif, head of Community Response. He’s of Palestinian and Iranian origin. And serving as nemesis for all four, white Sheriff Addison Grant of Blackwater Falls, a small town with large African American and immigrant communities. The four are on a mission to change the face the police show to communities of color. A noble mission, one that may be doomed to fail. And both Sheriff Grant and most of the officers in the DPD seem out to prove that it will.

Blood Betrayal (Blackwater Falls #2) by Ausma Zehanat Khan (2023) 304 pages ★★★☆☆

Photo of mountain scene south of Denver, close to the setting in this novel about the response to police shootings
Visitors to Blackwater Falls, Colorado, might view scenes like this on the outskirts of town. Image:

Two devilishly complex cases

Naturally, it doesn’t take long to realize that in both cases the facts aren’t what they seem. The cop who appears to have shot Mateo Ruiz in the back may not actually have done so. The incident took place in the rush and confusion of a narcotics raid, with tear gas clouding everyone’s vision. So someone else may have killed the young man. And the veteran officer who shot Duante Young might actually have had a motive to do so. But Sheriff Grant is throwing up roadblocks at every turn, frustrating the investigation into Duante’s death. And it looks as though any explanation for Mateo’s killing may lie under multiple layers of history.

There’s a lot to like in this novel. Khan digs deeply into the challenges faced by the detectives of Community Response as they navigate the tensions and conflicts in their personal lives while doing their jobs. And she paints a wholly convincing picture of the rifts deepening among the police as the communities they patrol become ever more diverse. Unfortunately, Khan’s resolution of both cases is shaky. And one of them rests on a set of coincidences so far-fetched as to be laughable. Sadly, Blood Betrayal doesn’t live up to the great promise the author showed in Blackwater Falls, the first novel in the series. I felt cheated.

About the author

Photo of Ausma Zehanat Khan, author of this novel about the response to police shootings
Ausma Zehanat Khan. Image: BookPage

Ausma Zehanat Khan is Canadian-American. She is the author of twelve novels, including both mystery stories as well as fantasy, and one work of nonfiction. Blood Betrayal is her most recent book.

Khan holds a Ph.D. in international human rights law. She specializes in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. She also received an LL.B. and LL.M. from the University of Ottawa, and a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology from the University of Toronto.

Khan practiced immigration law in Toronto and has taught international human rights law at Northwestern University, as well as human rights and business law at York University. She is a long-time community activist and writer, and has lived in Denver, Colorado, with her husband for fifteen years.

I’ve reviewed the excellent first book in this series at Blackwater Falls (The debut of a brilliant new series of small-town thrillers).

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