Review: A Beautiful Place to Die — Malla Nunn (Picador)

beautiful-place-to-dieThere’s a lot happening on the international crime fiction scene these days, and so much of it seems to be linked to Southern Africa. Roger Smith’s hardboiled Mixed Blood has become a pressure-cooker story on the international front: German publishers have snapped it up and the film’s been optioned with Samuel L. Jackson linked to the project. Then there’s Michael Stanley and the writing duo’s A Carrion Death , which recently hit the bestseller list in the LA Times . It appears as though South Africa is becoming a hotspot for thrillers and Malla Nunn’s debut A Beautiful Place to Die is one of many books breaking into the scene.

Turn back the clock to 1952, South Africa. The National Party is at the height of its power and, to paraphrase the author, not a year goes past without the government introducing some new heinous law that can be broken by virtue of a person’s skin colour.

The body of Captain Willem Pretorius is found floating in a river bordering on Mozambique, and Detective Emmanuel Cooper is sent from Johannesburg to investigate the killing. At first smugglers are suspected, but what Cooper eventually uncovers in the small town of Jacob’s Rest unleashes a political and personal storm that catches him wholly off guard.

On the surface, it seems that the townspeople had great respect for the captain. His family owned much of the business in the town, he was widely acknowledged as a white induna, or leader, amongst the Zulus, and appears to have had crime wholly under control. But as with all good mysteries, appearances are deceiving, and the peace in Jacob’s Rest, is no exception. The Englishman Cooper almost immediately runs afoul of the Captain’s four Afrikaner sons, and it is not long before the outsider is forced to form alliances with people at the fringes of society, in order to solve the case.

One is immediately struck by how one-dimensional all the Afrikaner characters in this novel are, and how the entire culture is ruthlessly vilified at every turn, when the author goes to great lengths to illustrate the complexities and conflicting moralities of the other characters. The junior police officer in the town, Hansie Heppel, is depicted as the village idiot to such extent that one wonders whether the character would ever have realistically been given a uniform; he is beyond parody. The white townspeople are routinely illustrated as zealous Christian fundamentalists, who have few qualities other than being inbred and mean. The women are milkmaids of bountiful mammaries, while the men are almost exclusively built like bulls, with the intelligence and temper to boot. A disappointment when one considers Detective Cooper. Our white detective from the big city is easy and comfortable around non-whites, yet his demons, associated with a failed marriage, his time in the trenches of the Second World War, and an even darker history further back in his childhood, is an achievement for a debut novelist. As is the old Jew Zweigman, a character very similar to the old shopkeeper in Richard Reve’s excellent Buckingham Palace. Though he sells his wares on the outer edge of white society, trading with blacks and “coloureds”, he too has a brooding history that’s resulted in his dear wife being a shattered husk of her earlier self.

The storyline stumbles in two places. At one point, a troubled man rather predictably emerges as the main suspect in Cooper’s investigation. The character dramatically shifts from a troubled lost soul to a heinous Proverbs-spewing rapist with only the vaguest explanation as to how he might have transformed himself in this way. Further on, Cooper and his romantic interest get into a pickle with very cold-blooded professional killers, and yet they escape what is an extremely harrowing and successful scene with a distraction that is implausible at best.

But let these objections not deter you. Malla Nunn’s prose is easy and accessible, her descriptions finely woven, the plot multi-layered, so that Jacob’s Rest and its people come alive in a memorable tapestry. The book’s strength lies in the metaphor that the town becomes for the racial tension in the country, at the time. The big houses and wide open streets belong to the whites, but they have no secrets the housemaids and garden boys don’t know about. Then there are the “kaffir paths” running in the veldt behind those houses and shops, trodden by those who are forbidden to walk proud in a white man’s town. The secrets hidden on these paths are invisible and inaccessible to the whites who have purposefully blinded themselves to what lies beyond their ideology. Cooper follows the clues into this world and discovers a world of paedophiles and porn, whores and drugs, and the white men who can’t leave non-white women alone. By stepping off the beaten track, the scales are removed from his eyes and he finally sees Jacob’s Rest for what it really is.

This metaphor, the meticulous build-up of the plot, and a very engaging Detective Emmanuel Cooper make this brooding mystery more appealing than most of the whodunits out there. It would be very interesting to see what Nunn does next with Cooper, who has the potential to become one of the great detectives of African crime fiction.

Malla Nunn was born in Swaziland but lived in South Africa during the height of apartheid. Of mixed blood, she fled the country with her parents at a young age, eventually settling in Australia, where she went on to become a successful filmmaker. A Beautiful Place to Die is her first novel.

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