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Honour on Trial: The Shafia Murders and the Culture of Honour Killings

by Paul Schliesmann

Listening to the tragic news story in the summer of 2009, it was clear that something was very wrong. A car containing the bodies of four women had been found submerged in a lock station near the city of Kingston, Ontario. The family suggested the occupants of the car had gone for a late-night joyride and had an accident. But as 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 victims were the first wife and three eldest daughters of Afghan-Canadian businessman Mohammad Shafia, who had murdered them with the assistance of his second wife and eldest son. The motive appeared to be an assertion of patriarchal control that tied into a primitive culture of so-called “honour killings.”

Journalist Paul Schliesmann covered the Shafia killings for the Kingston Whig-Standard, and his new book is a tight piece of true-crime reportage. Schliesmann doesn’t try to dramatize the events and, for the most part, wisely avoids speculation. This is remarkable given how much mystery still remains regarding how the murders were actually committed.

A lot of true-crime books are undone, paradoxically, by the trials of the accused. This is because the amount of information presented in a criminal trial tends to take over and turn the narrative into a dull, blow-by-blow account of who said what in court. Because Honour on Trial is such a condensed account, the imbalance doesn’t register as strongly, and Schliesmann cleverly introduces material from the trial early to offset the effect of too much backloading.

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

Otherwise, Schliesmann has given us a good, brief account of this tragic event, helpfully explaining the complex relationships within the Shafia family, and examining the evidence for what might have happened at Kingston Mills without resorting to extrapolation beyond the facts of the case.