Review: PRESENT DARKNESS by Malla Nunn

PresentDarknessNunnAudioWhen PRESENT DARKNESS opens we are in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the end of 1953. Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is one of the police called to the home of a white school principal. He and his wife have been brutally assaulted. Their teenage daughter says she recognises the voices of two of the black students her father invited to his home as the culprits. One of these boys is Aaron Shabalala, son of the Zulu detective who is Cooper’s best friend.

It feels odd to mention the colour of the participants in the way I have done above but skin colour is the single most important attribute each human has in the world Nunn depicts so vividly. It determines where you can live, what jobs you can get, what kind of health services you have access to, whether or not anyone in authority will give a damn when you are the victim of a crime and a myriad of other aspects of your life. I knew all of this on some intellectual level before reading Nunn’s books but I don’t think I’ve ever really understood how invasive apartheid was during every moment of every day. Cooper, who appears here in his fourth novel, is of mixed race heritage but ‘passes’ for white and compounds his law-breaking by living with a mixed race woman with whom he has now fathered a child. They live in constant fear of being found out by the wrong people. Davida, Cooper’s girlfriend, has not been out of the compound in which they are living for over a year when Cooper invites her along to an interview he needs to undertake because it will occur at an illegal club run by an old friend of his and the couple will be able to dance together for the first time. Nunn enables us to really grasp why someone would take the risk of being found out for such a simple pleasure that most of us would take for granted.

It is not just the enveloping settings that make Nunn’s books such a treat for readers; the characters are engaging too. Cooper is a complicated man. Still carrying the scars (and a ghost) from his childhood of poverty and his wartime activities he strives to be a good person but doesn’t always manage it. He struggles not to take out his justifiable anger on those who have hurt him or his loved ones but Nunn makes us care about him regardless, or even because, of his faults. Here we also meet some of Cooper’s friends from his childhood in Sophiatown which adds some depth to his back story and makes him all the more fascinating. The two friends who have seen him through previous scrapes, Samuel Shabalala and Daniel Zweigman, appear once again and together the trio are simply mesmerizing. Their collective desire to right the wrongs they see around them, despite the horrors they have all witnessed and are still experiencing daily, rekindles this reader’s faith in the human race.

To top all of this off PRESENT DARKNESS is an absolute ripper of a yarn. In some ways it is the most traditional procedural of the series but there is also plenty of the peril for our heroes and edge-of-seat drama that I’ve come to expect. Although I have loved all of its predecessors I think this is Nunn’s best novel to date. Despite the grim reality of its setting it does contain light (and even the odd glimmer of hope) along with the shade and there isn’t a single wrong note. I listened to a superb narration by Rupert Degas, who used various local accents and dialects to help the book really come alive for me, and cannot recommend it highly enough to those of you who like their crime fiction accompanied by a dose of immersive social context.

awwbadge_2014This is the second novel I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

You can also check out my co-host’s review of this novel from last year, or my own reviews of Nunn’s earlier novels A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE and LET THE DEAD LIE

Narrator: Rupert Degas
Publisher: Bolinda Audio [2014]
Length: 8 hours 7 minutes
Format: audio book
Creative Commons Licence
This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Review: PRESENT DARKNESS, Malla Nunn

  • US publication date June 3, 2014
  • Publisher Atria/Emily Bestler Books
  • ISBN 9781451616965
  • review copy made available through publisher via Net Galley
  • #4 in the Detective Emmanuel Cooper series

Synopsis (publisher)

Five days before Christmas (1953), Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper sits at
his desk at the Johannesburg major crimes squad, ready for his holiday in Mozambique. A call comes in: a respectable white couple has been assaulted and left for dead in their bedroom. The couple’s teenage daughter identifies the attacker as Aaron Shabalala— the youngest son of Zulu Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala—Cooper’s best friend and a
man to whom he owes his life.

The Detective Branch isn’t interested in evidence that might contradict their star witness’s story, especially so close to the holidays. Determined to ensure justice for Aaron, Cooper, Shabalala, and their trusted friend Dr. Daniel Zweigman hunt for the truth. Their investigation uncovers a violent world of Sophiatown gangs, thieves, and corrupt government officials who will do anything to keep their dark world intact.

 My take

Australian author Malla Nunn continues to write very credible stories in the Emmanuel Cooper series, full of atmosphere. A white school principal and his wife who invite coloured students to their home for meals are attacked one night after dinner. Their shocked daughter identifies the two students who were at dinner that night as the culprits. One has an unshakeable alibi but the other one, the son of Cooper’s best friend, refuses to say where he was.

Parallel with this investigation is Cooper’s uncomfortable relationship with the sergeant at the Johannesburg Detective Branch. Running in the background, chapter by chapter, is also the story of a prostitute who has been taken prisoner and is being held on a remote farm.

Cooper’s own relationship with Davida, the mixed race mother of his baby daughter Rebekah, reflects the knife edge that is South African apartheid. Exposure would mean the loss of his job and probably imprisonment. 

An excellent read.  My rating: 4.8.

I’ve already reviewed

Review: SILENT VALLEY, Malla Nunn

  • Published by Pan Macmillan Australia 2012
  • Alternative title BLESSED ARE THE DEAD
  • ISBN 978-7426-1088-7
  • 311 pages
  • #3 in the Emmanuel Cooper series
  • source: review copy from publisher

Synopsis (publisher)

A remote town. A girl of rare and exquisite beauty. A murder that silences a whole community.

The body of a seventeen-year-old girl has been found covered in wildflowers on a hillside in the Drakensberg Mountains, near Durban. She is the
daughter of a Zulu chief, destined to fetch a high bride price. Was Amahle as innocent as her family claims, or is her murder a sign that she lived a secret life?

Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is sent to investigate. He must enter the guarded worlds of a traditional Zulu clan and a white farming community to gather up the clues Amahle left behind and bring her murderer to justice. But the silence in the valley is deafening, and it seems that everyone – from the uncooperative local police officer, to the white farm boy who seems obsessed with the dead girl – has something to hide.

With no cause of death and no motive, Cooper’s investigation is blocked at each turn. Can he tough it out, or will the small-town politics that stir up his feelings about the past be more than he can bear?

In this page-turning tale of murder and mystery, Nunn entangles us in a rich and complex web of witchcraft, tribalism, taboo relationships… and plain old-fashioned greed.

My Take

This novel is set in South Africa in October 1953. It is a world still divided by apartheid, blacks are always treated as “kaffirs”, and white supremacy is assumed.

With Emmanuel Cooper comes his Zulu constable Shabalala. Apartheid means he can’t stay in the same hotels as Cooper, or dine at the same tables, but he can get the “real” story from the servants, and he understands local Zulu customs.

SILENT VALLEY is a very atmospheric novel. Malla Nunn is able to transport 21st century readers to a very different culture, and help us to see the crime with very different eyes.

Life is not easy for Emmanuel Cooper. He is descended from Boers and is still not accepted in police circles dominated by whites even though he has the patronage of Colonel van Niekerk who is also an Afrikaaner. van Niekerk will take the credit for Cooper’s successes, but will quickly disown him when he fails.

If you’ve never read any of this series before I would suggest you start at the beginning, so you get the full story (although of course you can read SILENT VALLEY as a stand alone). But there are characters who were created in the first and second novels who are important in the third and so you will understand more if you read them in order. They are available for Kindle.

My rating: 4.9

I’ve also reviewed



About the author

Malla Nunn grew up in Swaziland before moving with her parents to Perth
in the 1970s. She attended uni in WA, and then the US. In New York, she
worked on film sets, wrote her first screenplay before returning to
Australia where she began writing and directing short films and
corporate videos, three of which have won numerous awards and have been
shown at international film festivals. Her debut novel A Beautiful Place to Die
was published to international acclaim and won the 2009 Sisters in
Crime Davitt Award for Best Adult Crime Novel by an Australian female
author. Malla and her husband live in Sydney with their two children.

2013 Ned Kelly Shortlists announced

The shortlists for the Ned Kelly Awards for excellence in Australian crime writing were announced by the Australian Crime Writers Association at the recent Byron Bay Writers Festival. The winners in each category will be announced during the Brisbane Writers Festival on 7 September 

The following links are to the reviews created on Fair Dinkum Crime except where noted. You’ve got a month to get reading so you can compare your thoughts with the judges’.

Best First Fiction

Best Fiction

The links below take you to various reviews because we’re just not into true crime here at Fair Dinkum

True Crime

A difficult reader’s choice

As I mentioned back in May I am a member of  Sisters in Crime Australia and am therefore eligible to vote in the Reader’s Choice category in this year’s Davitt Awards. Never one to take voting duties lightly I was a little overwhelmed by the number of eligible titles. At that time I had read only 6 and a half of the eligible adult fiction titles so how could I possibly make an informed vote? Given I had no chance of reading all the eligible titles in the time available I decided not to fret too much, though did resolve to get my hands on as many of the books in the adult fiction category as I could given the limitations of book-buying budgets and waking hours in which to read.

I have now read 12 of the 25 eligible adult fiction books and to be honest almost all of them would be deserving winners. I have chosen my favourite (by the merest of margins) but I really wouldn’t mind if any of the others that I’ve liked was to win instead. However, my vote has gone to

DEATH MASK by Kathryn Fox: Although I thought the start a bit slow this book has one of the most creative storylines I’ve encountered in ages, focusing on sexual assaults committed by sporting stars. As with all the very best crime fiction it is about much more than the crimes it depicts; examining the psychology of team sports from all angles in a thought-provoking way that is far-removed from how we normally the subject addressed in the media. I thought it topical, non-sensationalist and utterly compelling.

Here are the others I’ve read (in alphabetical order):
  • A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN by Sulari Gentill: A delightful historical mystery set against a fascinating backdrop of social and political turmoil in Australia in the 1930’s. A young man of a wealthy background gets help from his left-wing friends to investigate the murder of his uncle and the book has a great setting, warm-lively characters and the historical setting is interesting (my rating 3.5)
  • COLD JUSTICE by Katherine Howell: The re-opening of the investigation into the death of a teenager 19-years earlier explores the idea of people’s pasts and how they might feel differently about events they witnessed or took part in with the benefit of age and distance. It is brilliantly plotted and full of compelling characters and is the best (to date) of a terrific series (my rating 4.5)
  • DEAD MAN’S CHEST by Kerry Greenwood An intelligent cosy mystery set in 1920’s Australia this book sees private detective Phryne Fisher and her household head to the seaside for a rest. Of course they encounter some mysteries to solve including the bizarre bandit threatening the long-haired ladies of Queenscliff and the sudden disappearance of a servant couple. It’s terrific to see  the latest book in a long running series receive the attention to detail and quality story telling that the first novels received (my rating 3.5)
  • KISS OF DEATH by P.D. Martin The fifth book in this series sees ex-pat Australian FBI Profiler Sophie Anderson helping Los Angeles police with an investigation into a murder that appears to have ritualistic elements that could be associated with a religious cult. This evidence, plus one of the psychic visions that Sophie sometimes has, leads her to look into the world of self-proclaimed vampires. I liked the procedural and investigative aspects of this book but did find the supernatural elements a bit over the top (my rating 3)
  • LET THE DEAD LIE by Malla Nunn: The second book of Nunn’s set in 1950’s South Africa follows the story of Emmanuel Cooper who, under the country’s increasingly draconian apartheid laws has recently been classified non-white and so is unable to work officially for the police anymore. However while undertaking some unofficial surveillance work for his old boss he finds a young boy’s body and is compelled to investigate the case. What I enjoyed most about this book is its depiction of the impact of his changed situation on Emmanuel Cooper which felt very realistic in addition to being heart-breaking (my rating 4)
  • MATTER OF TRUST by Sydney Bauer: Boston-based lawyer David Cavanagh goes home to New Jersey to defend an old friend who is accused of murder. The novel is decently paced but has a bit too much of a tv-script sensibility for me to find 100% engaging. I’d have liked a little more depth to the characters and their motivations (my rating 2.5)
  • NAKED CRUELTY by Colleen McCullough: This is the only one that I’ve read that I would be disappointed to see win as I just don’t think it’s a great example of the crime writing craft. Set in the US in 1969 and involving the investigation of numerous crimes including a series of brutal rapes I found it historically anachronistic and pretentious (my rating 2)
  • THE HALF-CHILD by Angela Savage: (my rating 4): In the mid-90’s Jayne Keeney is an Aussie living in Thailand and working as a private detective. She is asked to investigate the apparent suicide of a young Australian volunteer some months earlier and uncovers several nasty villains in the process. It’s a terrific novel with a great sense of its setting and a very thoughtful and nuanced plot (my rating 4)
  • THE OLD SCHOOL by P.M. Newton: The first (of what I hope is many) book to feature Detective Constable Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly, the book is set in 1992 in western Sydney and involves an investigation into some bones found at a building site. Newton does many things well but, for me, it’s the time and place captured to perfection that I will long remember in this tale that tackles such big issues as the search for identity, the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people and the nature of police corruption. (my rating 4)
  • WATCH THE WORLD BURN by Leah Giarratano: A woman dies from apparent spontaneous combustion at an up scale Sydney restaurant and then other odd, possibly related, events start happening around the city. Detective Jill Jackson is meant to be studying for her Masters Degree but is drawn into the investigation for personal reasons. As always I loved the way Giarratano draws her characters in a very believable and thoughtful way and the story is one that takes several unexpected turns. (my rating 4)
  • VIOLENT EXPOSURE by Katherine Howell: Paramedics are called to a domestic disturbance at the suburban home of Suzanne and Connor Crawford one night only to have the couple explain the incident away as nothing more than a disagreement. The next evening Police and paramedics are again called to the address only this time Suzanne Crawford is dead and her husband is missing. This is a fast-paced book with credible, recognisable characters and a superbly complex plot. (my rating 4.5)
Davitt awards in the categories of best adult crime novel, best young fiction crime book and best true crime book by Australian women writers are chosen by a judging panel. The Reader’s Choice award, voted by members of Sisters in Crime, can go to any of the titles eligible for one of these three categories. All the award winners will be announced in October. For a full list of the eligible titles in all the categories you can see my earlier post on the awards.

As for which book will actually win the award I’ve no idea. I’m notoriously bad at predicting such things and am normally well out of step with the majority, whoever and wherever they may be. All I can say is good luck to all, including those I’ve not had a chance to read yet, and I feel very fortunate as a reader to have been presented with such a terrific range of crime writing by Australian women for my enjoyment and education in just one year!

Review: LET THE DEAD LIE by Malla Nunn

This review was originally published at Reactions to Reading in May 2010

In the 1950′s it’s eight months since the events of A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE and, under South Africa’s increasingly draconian apartheid laws, Emmanuel Cooper has been re-classified as non-white and stripped of his job in the police. He’s had to move to Durban and is working a manual labour job by day and doing undercover surveillance work documenting police corruption at the dockyards for his former boss at night. It’s during his night time work that he stumbles across the body of a young boy, Jolly Marks. Of course investigating deaths is no longer Cooper’s job but he is compelled to work the case anyway. When he is accused of being the one to have committed the crime, and two subsequent murders, he has only a brief window of time to clear his name.

Once again Malla Nunn has delivered a brilliant depiction of a time and place. In the urban setting the harshness of the political situation is even more starkly displayed than was the case with the first book which took place in the remote Jacob’s Rest. With so many routine day-to-day activities now controlled by the myriad of new laws virtually everyone is in danger of doing something illegal at some point and the distrust, paranoia and necessary self-interest this engenders is portrayed here to perfection. There is also a hefty dose of desperation displayed by many characters caught in horrendous circumstances such as having married before the laws came into effect and now learning the marriage is outlawed because the couple are newly classified as different races. What struck me too here was that on top of all the kinds of hell the regime settled upon the civilian population it made the ever-present ‘us and them’ mentality between police and the wider community that much worse because, essentially, everyone a policeman comes across is a criminal of one sort or another. Even an honourable cop struggles to deal with that.

Characterisations are Nunn’s other great skill. I liked Emmanuel Cooper even more than in the first book though he is not always a likable human being. But as a character, flaws and all, he is the sort of person who leaps off the page. Experiencing first hand the plight of being classified out of the self-appointed ruling race and losing his job, the main thing by which he defines himself as a human being, make Cooper lose some of his confidence and sense of self-worth. He seems even more haunted by the phantom of his former Sergeant Major and is generally not functioning at his best but he strives, not always successfully, to do no harm to others, especially when the two friends he made in Jacob’s Rest come to town to help him. There isn’t a single standout villain here but there’s a criminal under

As far as story goes I found the middle section a bit woolly with a couple of complications too many. Apart from Cooper, who simply can’t let the dead lie, no one seemed to care much about the murder victims because they were too busy worrying about themselves (not without good reason I admit) or, in the case of the cops, were focused on ‘getting’ Cooper. For a while the story lost its way a little though it ended strongly with a nail-biting but believable climax.

Emmanuel Copper is certainly not the first flawed protagonist in crime fiction but I find him unique in terms of the experiences he’s endured and I’m left wanting to read more about him. And while this is too confronting a setting to be considered a comfort read it is superbly drawn and, alas, all too believable. I heartily recommend this book though would suggest reading A Beautiful Place to Die first to get a full sense of all that Cooper has had and lost before becoming who he is in this novel.

My rating: 4/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher Simon & Schuster [2010]
ISBN 97814116586227
Length 382 pages
Format Trade Paperback
Source I bought it


Over at his blog Pulp Curry (Crime, hard-boiled and curried) writer Andrew Nette has just finished Malla Nunn’s 2008 novel, A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE and has tagged it an almost perfect debut novel. According to Andrew

“the book’s strengths – fantastic writing, an amazing sense of place, a wonderful less is more quality – are established in the first paragraph.”

You can read the rest of Andrew’s review on his blog.

Andrew’s opinions are in keeping with the other reviews of that particular book posted here at Fair Dinkum. My review said

yet another book that has everything I look for in my crime fiction and had me alternating between indignant mutterings under my breath, heart-in-my-mouth fear and more than a few tears

While Kerrie’s highlighted that it’s

a fascinating exploration of relationships in an area where white supremacy is already an acknowledged way of life

Coincidentally I went to my monthly book club get together this morning and received back my copy of this one (slightly battered in that way that a much-read book will always look) which has been doing the round since last August (or thereabouts). Everyone agreed that it’s a terrific read.

It’s certainly one of my all-time favourite works of Aussie crime fiction and one of those books I recommend to readers of all genres. It’s that good.


Macmillan 2008
ISBN 978-1-405-03877-5
397 pages
Borrowed from my library.

From Wikipedia:
Apartheid was a system of legal racial segregation enforced by the National Party government in South Africa between 1948 and 1994, under which the rights of the majority ‘non-white’ inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed and minority rule by white people was maintained.
New legislation classified inhabitants into racial groups (“black”, “white”, “coloured”, and “Indian”), and residential areas were segregated, sometimes by means of forced removals.

It is against this background that Malla Nunn sets A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE.
It is September 1952. A white man’s body has been found in deep country, in the river that separates South Africa from Mozambique. The body floats face down within reach of the river’s edge on the South African side. Some kaffir boys found the body, and now it is being guarded by a nineteen year old Afrikaner constable. Three Afrikaner men, built like rugby players, stand a little way off, waiting for the investigating team from Johannesburg to arrive. For the dead man is their father, Captain Willem Pretorius, the local police chief. And the investigating “team” is Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper, sent out solo on the murder of a white police captain.

Cooper had been investigating another murder only an hour away and had been despatched to check the “possible” homicide. At the scene also is the man Pretorius had grown up with, Constable Shabalala, a Zulu. The opening scene gives Cooper a lesson in how the social structure works around here. The Pretorius sons think  their father has been killed by Mozambique smugglers, but Cooper is not so sure.

Finding a doctor who can sign a death certificate leads him to meet “the Jew”, Zweigman, who is an elderly  German living with his wife in a shanty town where there are no English or Afrikaners.

Things become even more complex when Cooper’s boss in Johannesburg tells him that the Security Branch has decided that the murder may be political, and that they are sending a team to take over the investigation. Cooper will be expected to co-operate.

A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE is a fascinating exploration of relationships in an area where white supremacy is already an acknowledged way of life. However the newly passed racial segregation laws are about more than who rules. Emmanuel Cooper can’t be sure that even he is going to get out alive.

This was an impressive debut book, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, LET THE DEAD LIE.
If  you’d like to read some opening pages click on the image to the right.

My rating: 5.0

Emmanuel Cooper has recently returned from Europe, from the war, leaving behind his English wife, but not leaving behind his sergeant major, a Scotsman, who gave soldiers advice on how to kill before they were killed, who lives on in his mind. This, his sometimes blurred vision, and the headaches, indicate a man who is still suffering from post traumatic stress. He reminded me of the central character created by Charles Todd, Ian Rutledge, who is constantly reminded of the war (in this case World War One) by the ever present voice of Hamish MacLeod, “Hamish in his head”.

Other reviews to check:

  • Petrona: “this book is more than a crime novel, and it is one that will rest in the mind for a while.”
  • Reactions to Reading: “yet another book that has everything I look for in my crime fiction”
  • Reviewing the Evidence: “an extraordinarily powerful novel”

A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE won the 2009 Sisters in Crime (Australia) Davitt Award for Best Adult Crime Novel,  and was shortlisted in 2010 for Edgar Award and is also shortlisted for Macavity Award for Best First Novel

About Malla Nunn
Malla Nunn grew up in Swaziland before moving with her parents to Perth in the 1970s. She attended university in WA, and then the US. In New York, she worked on film sets, wrote her first screenplay and met her American husband-to-be, before returning to Australia where she began writing and directing short films and corporate videos. Fade to White, Sweetbreeze and Servant of the Ancestors have won numerous awards and have shown at international film festivals from Zanzibar to New York. Malla and her husband live in Sydney with their two children.

Malla Nunn & Others Talk About The Stories Behind Their Stories

See also the Simon & Schuster site.


Pan Macmillan Australia 2010
ISBN 978-1-4050-3920-8
390 pages
Source: my local library

Publisher’s blurb:

In Let the Dead Lie, Cooper is a changed man. Forced to resign from his position of Detective Sergeant and re-classified as mixed race, he winds up powerless and alone in the tough coastal city of Durban, mixing labouring with a bit of surveillance work for his old boss, Major van Niekerk.
Patrolling the freight yards one night, Cooper stumbles upon the body of a young white boy and, the detective in him can not, or will not, walk away. When two more bodies – this time black women – are discovered at his boarding house, he unwittingly becomes the prime suspect in a triple murder case.
At van Niekerk’s behest, Cooper’s given 48 hours to clear his name and – unofficially – solve the three murders. And so, temporarily back to being a European Detective Sergeant, he launches headlong into Durban’s seedy underworld, a viper’s nest of prostitution, drug running and violence run by a colourful cast of characters including wannabe Indian gangsters; a mysterious figure who drives a white De Soto convertible; a Zion Gospel preacher, and the exquisite yet streetwise Lana, who also happens to be van Niekerk’s mistress…

My take
LET THE DEAD LIE takes place in Durban, South Africa, in May 1953, 8 months after the action of Malla Nunn’s debut crime novel A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE which I reviewed earlier this year. Events moved on after the conclusion of the action covered in that novel. Apartheid has become deeper entrenched in Souther Africa, and just 6 months earlier Emmanuel Cooper lost his job in the police force because he upset the Security forces. He now works for his former boss in an undercover role.

Among the characters in LET THE DEAD LIE, and important to understanding the plot are Russians who were close to Josef Stalin, by this time dead. The writing style of LET THE DEAD LIE has a modern feel about it, and I kept forgetting that the action was taking place in 1953. The plot is many stranded and complex. Adding to the complexity are details from Cooper’s past, some going back to his childhood, and some from his experiences in Paris in 1945 at the end of the war.

I was glad to meet up again with Zweigman, the German doctor, and Shabalala, the Zulu police constable from A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE. I commented in my review of  A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE  about the sergeant major who offers Cooper advice in times of stress, particularly when he has a migraine coming on. He plays with Cooper’s head in LET THE DEAD LIE too.

It would have been remarkable if Australian author Malla Nunn had been able to achieve the same level of writing in LET THE DEAD LIE as she did in A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE. However, I do think this second novel has a level of complexity that the first didn’t, and is therefore a more difficult read, and I struggled at times to know what was going on.

My rating: 4.5

Other Reviews:
Reactions to Reading

LET THE DEAD LIE was a nomination for the 2010 CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award.

A Beautiful Place to die, Malla Nunn

Pan Macmillan 2008, ISBN 978-1-405-03877-5, 397pages

In the early 1950’s in the small South African town of Jacob’s Rest the police captain, Willem Pretorius, is found brutally murdered. When Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is sent to investigate he struggles against the backdrop of the newly instituted racial segregation laws (apartheid) . Pretorius’ Afrikaner family want quick vengeance: they distrust Cooper who is English and assume it is the black community or coloureds who have killed their patriarch. At the same time the Security Police descend on the town and work on the theory that Pretorius was killed by a communist or other political activist and they soon sideline Cooper from their investigation.

Of the many striking things about this book the one that is likely to stay with me longest is the unflichingly honest picture it paints of the time and place in which it is set. So many engrossing details of both the political and physical setting are provided that I easily felt myself in the town of Jacob’s Rest with its roads for whites and its kaffir paths and its segregated Sunday church services with potluck dinners. I felt awkward and angry as the realities of the segregation laws were demonstrated through the story playing out but despite my discomfort I found myself unwilling to leave the place even for a moment and read the entire book in a single sitting.

On top of the setting the book has stunning characters. Cooper struggles with nightmares from his days in the trenches during the war and regularly argues with the voice of his former Sergeant Major. Although white he is distrusted by the powerful Afrikaners but also finds it hard to be accepted by the myriad second class citizens although, ultimately, it is a myriad collection of these people, including captain Pretorius’ Zulu ‘brother’ Constable Samuel Shabalala, who help him with his investigation. But it’s not only the sympathetic characters who are brilliantly depicted: Lieutenant Piet Lapping of the Special Branch is one of the most loathsome men you’ll find in crime fiction, all the more so because he’s entirely believable.

Of course none of this would be worth much if the book didn’t also tell a gripping story and there’s a real old-fashioned whodunnit here. In trying to uncover who killed Willem Pretorius Cooper uncovers a series of crimes that have been left unsolved because the victims weren’t white and also learns of Pretorius’ own moral lapses. He races to find what these events may have had to do with Pretorius’ death as he tries to salvage his own career from being ruined by the Special Branch.

This is yet another book that has everything I look for in my crime fiction and had me alternating between indignant mutterings under my breath, heart-in-my-mouth fear and more than a few tears.