Honour on Trial

By Paul Schliesmann

Listening to the news in the summer of 2009 it was clear that something was very wrong with the story: a car with the bodies of four women in it had been found submerged in a lockstation near Kingston. As the police investigated, more facts came to light, revealing a conspiracy as brainless (especially given all the planning that went into it) as it was heartless. The women were the first wife and the three oldest daughters of Afghan-Canadian businessman Mohammad Shafia, who had murdered them with the assistance of his second wife and eldest son. The only motive appeared to be an assertion of patriarchal control that tied into a primitive culture of so-called “honour killing.”

Journalist Paul Schliesmann covered the story of the Shafia killings for the Kingston Whig-Standard, and with Honour on Trial he has turned that work into a tight piece of true crime reportage. Schliesmann doesn’t try and dramatize the events in any way, and also avoids any speculation. This latter point is all the more remarkable given how much mystery still remains over how the murders were committed and what roles the three convicted killers played.

A lot of true crime books are undone, paradoxically, at trial. This is because the amount of information thrown up by a criminal trial, and the often dramatic nature of the proceedings, tends to take over everything else and the narrative turns into a rather dull blow-by-blow account of who said what on the stand. But because this is such a condensed account the imbalance doesn’t register as strongly, and Schliesmann very cleverly introduces material from the trial early in the narrative to offset the effect of too much backloading.

The only place where Schliesmann’s approach may frustrate some readers is in its handling of the subject of honour killings. Given the title and subtitle, one might expect some special focus on this matter, but it’s a topic that’s only briefly touched upon, mainly in reference to some expert testimony provided at trial, with little discussion over the debate that arose at the time over the use of the label by the media.

Schliesmann has given us a good, brief account of this tragic event – helpfully explaining such difficult matters as the complex history and relationships within the Shafia family, and discussing in detail what the evidence tells us about what might have actually happened at Kingston Mills – but he limits himself, perhaps a bit unduly, to reporting just the facts.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2013.

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