A Beautiful Place to Die brings to life a 1950s South Africa, when new apartheid laws have just been enacted and when justice is in turmoil. The murder of a rural Afrikaner police officer sets in motion a series of explosive encounters and events between white, blacks, “coloureds,” and the local Afrikaner community. Caught in the middle is Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper, who has been sent to solve the crime. Soon, however, a team from what is called the Security Branch arrives to take over the investigation, relegating Cooper to a back-up role and ensuring that no white or Afrikaner person will be accused. Instead, the Security Branch wants to pin the crime on blacks and/or communists. Their methodology is simple and direct–to plant evidence and to extract so-called confessions by means of torture.
Cooper refuses to cooperate. He is convinced that the truth lies not in national politics but rather in local interconnections and relationships. So he continues his own search for whoever killed Wilhelm Pretorius by turning over the rocks that hide the village secrets. Cooper is a man who understands the complex posturings and prejudices of the other characters. He draws out their insecurities, their sympathies, and gradually their secrets. In turn he questions, works with, and works against the native policeman, Shabalala, the Jewish doctor turned tradesman, the uncontrollably violent sons of the murdered man, the vast array of “coloureds” who populate the town. (I apologize for using the term “coloureds,” as I happen to despise it. But it was common in South Africa during the 1950s, categorizing a particular group of societal members affected by the recent Immorality Act, and it describes an important distinction in A Beautiful Place to Die.)
The author, Malla Nunn, was born in Swaziland and now lives in Australia. She writes vigorously, with inside knowledge of the South African landscape both physical and psychological. She not only narrates a police procedural set back in time, but she also brings that historic moment into sharp relief. I learned a lot about apartheid South Africa, and I became much more aware of all the grey complexities that the black and white Immorality Act caused. The book cover mentions “the corrosive double standard” of the times, and Nunn relentlessly exposes that poisonous corrosion. Her prose is earthy, unromantically realistic, gritty, and at times uncomfortably graphic, but it seems to get at the heart of racism and racial interactions in that apartheid world.
Apparently Nunn will be writing more novels centering on Detective Cooper’s 1950s South African investigations. My paperback copy of A Beautiful Place to Die includes the first two chapters of Let the Dead Lie, and Amazon tells me that Present Darkness will be available in 2014. I plan to read both, for I would like to learn more about that time and place in history. I’d like to follow Cooper’s career, too. Whether he is tracking the kaffir paths on the edge of town, prowling the oceanside streets of Mozambique, or enduring the Special Forces special brand of interrogation, he is a man of insight and honor. And he is relentless, always insisting on the truth, always unwilling to accept the lies. – Ann Ronald