Merrimon Book Reviews

Coronation of Queen Elizabeth

Sign during Apartheid
in Durban decades even decades after book's setting

Indians arriving for the first time in Durban, South Africa. The date is unknown, but very likely before World War I.

Modern Day Durban
Photo credit: Simisa
From Merrimon Book Reviews
Let The Dead Lie
Let The Dead Lie by Malla Nunn
by Malla Nunn

Second book in a most promising series!

Second in the Emmanuel Cooper series, LET THE DEAD LIE opens in 1953 in Durban, South Africa after a brief prologue in set in 1945 Paris which casts a framework defining Cooper's career and determined search for justice.  The National Party's apartheid laws are in effect.  The port town of Durban with its diverse racial groups and tribes does not easily fit into a black and white view of race.  After his case in the first book, A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE, now former detective and ex-soldier Emmanuel Cooper, does surveillance work of corrupt policemen on the seedy docks of Durban, a place frequented by prostitutes, thieves and other low life activities.  When Cooper discovers the dead body of a young errand boy, he cannot let the crime go.  As he becomes a suspect in the crime, Cooper races against the clock to solve the murder.  Several complications and interwoven connections expose several layers of corruption and danger.

In LET THE DEAD LIE, Malla Nunn, Swaziland born filmmaker and author, creates a murder mystery rich in detail that takes the reader to the heart 1950s South African culture. Every gesture or word between characters carries with it the social construct of apartheid.  As in her first novel, Malla Nunn instills a keen sense of place and history into the mystery. Against this rich background, LET THE DEAD LIE creates complex characters in which various types of corruption, overt and those hidden beneath surface appearances come into play. 
Cooper's investigation takes the reader beyond the stereotypes created by apartheid, while exposing the unintended consequences of the apartheid laws.  The preparations for Queen Elizabeth's coronation in the background provide a stark contrast to life around the Durban dockyards and the other places where Cooper's investigation leads while also placing the mystery within a larger historical framework.  As in the first book, Malla Nunn digs deeper behind the surface to reveal those human connections and passions that seethe below the surface of the society and the individual.

Like her debut mystery, A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE,
LET THE DEAD LIE is a riveting mystery where clues and carefully laid twists and turns make for a fast page turner and also a rich work of fiction to satisfy a deeper longing within the reader for depth in setting, characterization and history.  The second novel can be read as a stand alone although I would encourage first time readers to read both books in order.  The second novel will be all the richer in the context of the first when a reader already knows the history of many secondary characters, particularly the Scottish voice of the phantom staff sergeant that reappears from time to time, which is likely to be more confusing to first time readers.  This voice, however, give insights into Cooper's past and his internal thoughts.  The framing of the mystery as a deal quickens the pace and yet, somehow, feels unbelievable.  Nevertheless, once one suspends belief and follows the story, the intricate connections that make the mystery make LET THE DEAD LIE more satisfying than a straight line to the culprit with a few red herrings mystery.

As a whole, A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE, was slightly better as a mystery than LET THE DEAD LIE, yet it is this second Malla Nunn mystery that truly develops the series with a more intimate look at Emmanuel Cooper. 
LET THE DEAD LIE is a crucial important book to carry the series forward precisely because of the author's character development. The insights into his character become even more fascinating here as past and present once again combine to create him the man that he is, making this reader most curious where this case will lead him next.  While I love the first book of the series, this book, despite its minor imperfections, makes the choice to read the author's third automatic more so than just the first alone.  Together, the two books create a complex character worth following.  In both books, setting and history play a crucial role, not just as background but as fully integrated into the mystery.  Twelve questions and a short interview at the end will facilitate a deeper reading either for individual readers or as a starting point for book club discussions.  Malla Nunn is a must read for the mystery lover looking for something rich, original and refreshingly different.

Publisher:  Washington Square Press (April 20, 2010)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
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