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A Beautiful Place to Die
A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn
by Malla Nunn

A magnificent start to a promising series!

First in the Detective Emmanuel Cooper series, A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE, opens in 1952 South Africa as the National Party's apartheid laws go into effect, expanding outwards into the farthest reaches of the country. Called from Johannesburg to investigate a murder in Jacob's Rest, a town near the border of South Africa and Mozambique, war veteran and police detective Emmanuel Cooper discovers a body of Captain Pretorius, a white policeman who rules the town in more ways than one. An Afrikaner whose family spearheads the move to the new South Africa as a land for God's chosen people, Captain Pretorius's family is the moral pivot around which the white community and his own family turns. Cooper's investigation proves difficult as the forces wanting to unearth the murderer are checked by witnesses reluctant to come forward on all sides of the racial divide for reasons of safety as well as to preserve the reputation of the victim. When the Special Branch enters the investigation, their determination to find black radical communists to boost the success of the National Party's mission threatens to sacrifice the truth for political purpose. Determined to uncover the truth, Cooper sets off on his own to unravel the mystery of the murder alongside a case of crimes against women that was long ignored since the women were not white. Shabalala, a Zulu-Shangaan policeman who was like a brother to Captain Pretorius gives Cooper and indeed the reader a window thorough which to view the victim's complexity. As he investigates, Cooper discovers the secret relationships and crimes beneath the intricately layered rules of social and now legal rules, a truth that threatens his physical safety and entire social construct seemingly so stable in Jacob's Rest.

In A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE, Malla Nunn, the Swaziland born filmmaker and now debut author, creates a murder mystery rich in detail that takes the reader to the heart of a small South African town in this period. Every gesture or word between characters carries with it the social construct of apartheid. Malla explores the tense relations between the English and the Afrikaners as well as the religious mythology behind apartheid, with subtlety tying it into World War II through her characters and history. Against this background, A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE creates complex characters whose divided loyalties belie surface appearances. As characters uphold apartheid's legal and mythological ideal of racial purity, the murder investigation unearths seething passions, corruption and the dangerous lengths to which the characters will go to preserve their outward sense of honor all the while committing atrocious acts. Against this backdrop, Malla Nunn creates a multi-layered portrait of the murder victim and indeed of Shabalala as well, two men whose friendship crossed the racial divide. Cooper's investigation takes the reader beyond the stereotypes created by apartheid, revealing aspects of the murder victim's most private life and the divided loyalties within his heart.

A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE is not only a riveting mystery where clues and carefully laid twists and turns make this book a fast page turner but also a rich work of fiction to satisfy a deeper longing within the reader for depth in setting, characterization and history. This reader hopes to catch a deeper glance of some of the characters here, especially the Jewish Zweigman and the policemen as the series develops. Malla Nunn draws the reader into both the setting and the crime hunt as the shocking path to the culprit leads to an unexpected revelation with dangerous consequences. Unlike many detective crime movies set in Africa, A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE provides a more intimate look into the the subtle workings of the effects of racial laws and makes this period of history come alive. Do not pick up this book expecting a cozy mystery set in an exotic setting that passes lightly over torture and other graphic details. If however, you crave a mystery that goes beyond the mere solving of a crime, albeit with exciting prepared but unexpected turns, into something grittier that peers into the very social constructs and intimacy of the human heart, for better and worse, A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE is a stunning, memorable read. A magnificent start to a promising series!

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 2009)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
Courtesy of Amazon Vine

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