Fiction – paperback; Pan MacMillan Australia; 408 pages; 2010.
It’s hard to believe that A Beautiful Place to Die is Malla Nunn’s first novel because it’s such an accomplished piece of literature. Nunn, who was born in Swaziland but now resides in Sydney, Australia, is a filmmaker. She clearly brings her visual eye to her writing, because this is a truly evocative — and provocative — piece of work.
The story, which is set in South Africa in the spring of 1952, functions on one level as a straightforward murder mystery but at a deeper level it explores the immorality, prejudice, cruelty and violence of Apartheid rule.
It opens with the murder of a police captain in the rural town of Jacob’s Rest. Captain Willem Pretorius, an Afrikaner widely respected in the community, has been found floating face down in a river with a bullet in his head and another in his back.
Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper, an “English” South African from Jo’berg, is called to investigate.
Cooper, still haunted by the battlefields of the Second World War, has no truck with the race laws. He sees his job in very simple terms: to find the perpetrator of the crime regardless of their skin colour.
But Cooper’s code of ethics makes his task more difficult, because as far as the captain’s wife and five adult sons are concerned, only a black man would kill a white. And when the police Security Branch step in to take over the investigation they’re already eyeing up potential suspects that suit the outcome they desire, regardless of the truth.
Cooper finds himself in a difficult position (his life is put at risk on more than one occasion), but continues his work undaunted. He is aided by two allies, Zulu policeman Constable Samuel Shabalala and Dr Zweigman, a Jewish German who owns the town’s general store.
The quick-paced narrative is filled with plenty of surprises, as Cooper sets out to unearth Pretorius’ secret life while trying to hide secrets of his own…
A Beautiful Place to Die, first published in 2008, is a highly intelligent literary crime novel, one that brims with a slow burning anger. Not only does it reveal the sheer injustice (and stupidity) of The Immorality Act — one of the first Apartheid laws — which bans all sexual relations between whites and non-whites, it highlights the subjugation of black women and the volatile tension of racial segregation.
In Cooper, Nunn has created a slightly damaged but wise man with a strong moral compass and plenty of courage. It will be interesting to follow his development in the second instalment, Let the Dead Lie, which was published last year to critical acclaim.