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.
I very much agree with your take. I found the setting and period fascinating. I still vividly recall the tiny network of alleys behind the “main” streets, that the Black community used to avoid the surveillance. I agree with you about the second half & the melodrama. I also had the feeling that Cooper was not fully a character “of his time” but was slightly too much a character viewing events with modern sensibilities. I appreciate he is a social outcast (or would be if his true origins were officially known) and hence has a different perspective from most characters who are “in one camp or the other” but even so, I felt he was not quite a 1950s man. Laura Wilson in Stratton’s War (a very different type of book) presents characters that are oddballs but still “of their time and circumstances” in the very different creations of Ted Stratton and Diana.
Thanks, Maxine. That’s such an interesting point you make about characters being ‘of their time’, or possibly not quite, as in Cooper’s case.
One ‘out’ for Nunn is that she has Cooper experience WW2, so he has a much wider view of the world than most of his countrymen, who are depicted as being very inward looking. I think giving him this background does make a difference to his viewpoint (for example he has a better understanding of the Jewish couple living on the fringes of society) and I found him pretty convincing for that reason.
The problem of narrators being out of joint with dominant attitudes was also raised by the ‘medieval’ writers I saw the other week. Their investigators tend to be depicted as progressive, because a more ‘realistic’ depiction of a medieval man and his attitudes would almost certainly be alien / alienate the reader. So I think this is a problem that authors often have to wrestle with, (especially if their detective is working under / for a repressive regime). There’s a very tricky tension between staying true to the period you’re writing on and satisfying the reader’s desire for a fundamentally ‘good’ detective.
You’re spot on that the plot became a bit too melodramatic but I must admit it was all the other elements of the book that had me gripped to the point that I almost did not notice the plot. I had not read a lot about the start of the apartheid period in South African history and I thought she did a great job of capturing that time. The second book is much grimmer, still good but much darker in tone. Her third book is due outh here next month and I shall be picking that one up too.
Thanks, Bernadette. Absolutely agree with you: fascinating period, and Nunn does an excellent job of bringing it to life.
Normally I’d be a bit put off an author by the melodrama factor, but I’m really keen to read number 2, even more so after your description of it. It’ll be very interesting to see how the series and her style evolves.
Enjoy the third. I’ll look forward to your review!
I wasn’t so keen on book 2 as book 1, but you learn more about Cooper in it, and it certainly continues the “outcast” theme. I can’t remember all that much about it now but I think it became too much of a “thriller” in the end, for my taste. Lots of very good things about it, though, and I agree that the setting and period are fascinating.
Thanks, Maxine – keen to see what I make of it now!
I thought this was an excellent book on many respects, especially in its conveyance of the brutality of the apartheid regime and the brutality, even murderous, of the state and ruling and privileged groupings. Despite all I know of this period, this book personalized it and brought it home, to the point where I was alternatively angry, shocked and in tears in sympathy with the Black women depicted.
One important aspect of the book was the exposition of inter-racial relationships where an African woman had no choice if a wealthier, more privileged white man wanted to pursue her. There was no option of saying “no,” no freedom of choice. This is not discussed in much literature, although in the U.S., it is raised in discussions of the horrific enslavement of Black people.
The second book is quite good but stresses different aspects of society, for one thing, the urban poverty in Durban which hit people of many nationalities.
I eagerly await Nunn’s third book.
Thanks very much, Kathy. I very much agree with you that the exploration of the power dynamics in interracial relationships under apartheid was an extremely important aspect of the novel – and the spotlight thrown on women being treated as a ‘commondity’ that could be ‘sold’ between males such as father and suitor. It was one of the elements that lingered longest in my mind after I’d finished reading the novel.
Also, the aspect that even if African women were “involved” with an Afrikaner man of power and wealth, the element of coercion, domination and intimidation is an undercurrent. How much of that type of liaison was really out of choice?
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