Malla Nunn, A Beautiful Place to Die (London: Picador, 2010). An intriguing debut novel set in 1950s South Africa as apartheid is taking hold 4 stars
Opening sentence: Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper switched off the engine and looked out through the dirty windscreen.
I’ve been looking for a good crime novel to sink my teeth into, and this one stood out from the crowd as I was browsing online recently. A Beautiful Place to Die is the debut crime novel by Malla Nunn, an Australian-based but Swaziland-born author, and is the first of the Emmanuel Cooper series, set in 1950s apartheid South Africa. It was awarded the Australian ‘Sisters in Crime Davitt Award for Best Adult Crime Novel’ and was shortlisted for the American Edgar Awards (‘Best Novel’ category).
The book opens in September 1952 with the discovery of a murdered police captain, Willem Pretorius, in a river by the South African settlement of Jacob’s Rest, near the Mozambique border. Detective Emmanuel Cooper is called in to investigate, and soon realises that the case is extremely sensitive, as Pretorius is a well-connected Afrikaaner within the powerful National Party movement, and Security Branch investigators are poised to take political advantage by framing a black communist for the crime. It quickly becomes clear that getting to the bottom of this murder will place a number of individuals, including Cooper himself, in a great deal of danger.
For me, the great strength of this novel was the way it used the crime narrative to illustrate the socially divisive and destructive effect of the racial segregation laws, introduced by the Nationalist government from 1948 onwards. Cooper, who served in Europe during the Second World War, notes despondantly that ‘eight years after the beaches of Normandy and the ruins of Berlin, there was still talk of folk-spirit and race purity out on the African plains’. Ironically, apartheid was gearing up for four decades of oppression at practically the same time as German fascism in Europe was defeated.
The novel convincingly captures the tensions apartheid generates within Jacob’s Rest, as well the inevitable tangles that its simplistic racial categorisations bring about: the dedicated Volk ideologue who furtively thinks of himself as part-Zulu; fair-skinned children of black and white parents who ‘pass’ illegally as whites; illicit liasons between white men and black women that fall foul of the Immorality Act because no law can successfully control desire. The novel also has interesting points to make about the gendered power-dynamics of interracial relationships, and the limited options open to black women being pursued by white men.
While I felt the first half of the book was extremely well-written, with a tremendous sense of place, portions of the second half dipped substantially for me, mainly because the plot became too melodramatic for my taste. In spite of this I still find myself keen to read the second book in the series, due to the depiction of Cooper (a complex, well-drawn investigative figure negotiating a repressive regime), the novel’s successful portrayal of 1950s South Africa, and the fact that the novel lingered in my mind for many days after I’d turned the final page.
The second novel in the series, Let the Dead Lie, was published in 2011. The publisher’s synopsis is available here.
Mrs Peabody awards A Beautiful Place to Die a slightly wobbly but fascinating 4 stars.