Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Malla Nunn, Pan Macmillan Australia, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘A Beautiful Place to Die’ by Malla Nunn


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.

20 thoughts on “‘A Beautiful Place to Die’ by Malla Nunn”

  1. Yes, got this in Dymocks as part of a 3 for 2 offer. It was a brilliant read… Will definitely read the next one in the series. With your South African connections, I’m sure you’d like this one a lot. (I’d offer to send you this copy, but have already passed it onto my dad.)


  2. My first stop from here will be to see if this is available in the UK because it sounds superb. It also sounds as though in subject matter at least, it might have something in common with Alan Paton’s ‘Cry the Beloved Country’ which was written in 1949 and also deals with questions of justice and colour after a murder. If you haven’t read that then I strongly recommend it, although it is a heart-breaking read.


  3. Annie, this one should be available in the UK without too much problem. As to Cry the Beloved Country, I’ve not read it, although it’s one I’ve wanted to read for a long time. Thanks for reminding me of it. I might see if I can source a cheap copy…


  4. I enjoyed this book very much, though it had a few plot flaws I think. But it is a stunning debut. One aspect I did not think she got quite right is that the main character seems to me more like a twenty first century man might think in the guise of a 1950s liberal thinker – his attitudes seemed to have too much of a modern perspective. But that’s a quibble, it is a jolly good book I think (and better than her second, Let the Dead Lie, in my opinion).


  5. The thought did cross my mind that Cooper was maybe a bit too modern, but I figured he’d seen enough blood and guts on the battlefield to enlighten him about the ways in which we should treat our fellow human beings. And part of me likes to think that there were good, liberal thinking people in South Africa at the time, because surely they weren’t all racists and brutes?


  6. Mm, sounds great! I think it’s going on my list. Although I’m a bit bothered my Maxine’s concern. A historically accurate “feel” should be important to an author of this type of work. Still interested though 🙂


  7. There seems to be a lot I would like in this book. I like what you write about her visual eye. I love books that create strong images. The characters (especially Cooper with his WWII past) and the themes sound very interesting. I’m really in the mood to read it.


  8. I agree there were plenty of liberals around at the time. My point was mainly that Cooper struck me as having modern attitudes to the situations and times, rather than the attitudes a liberal thinker of the day would have had.


  9. Thanks so much for putting this review up Kim because it sounds a wonderful book, and one that could just be right up my street, I would never in a million years picked it up through its cover though! Isn’t that awful and materialistic, but honest!?


  10. This is off topic but…
    Why do so many novels set in South Africa have this same cover image? (Coetzee, Dalgut). I live next door to the Canadian Prairie and it show up infrequently here — but it does seem to inspire graphic designers whenever there is a book set in South Africa.


  11. Given my comments on your blog are usually so off topic, I’ll allow you to do the same on mine, Kevin 😉
    I guess this kind of image is just short-hand for Africa and hence it’s a fairly predictable (lazy?) choice. At least it doesn’t have an elephant on it!


  12. Fair enough, Maxine. Wasn’t something that bothered me. If anything, I found him rather endearing. But maybe that’s because I identified with his modern mindset? Still, as you point out above, this is a jolly good book. I’m glad to have accidentally discovered it while browsing in a bookshop in Melbourne earlier this month…


  13. The book felt historically accurate to me… but then I’ve never lived in South Africa when Apartheid was in full swing, so I can’t vouch for its authenticity. I just know this was an entertaining read set in a fascinating time period…


  14. This book doesn’t read like a film script (far too literary for that), but Nunn creates such strong images that I could easily see it being adapted for the screen. It would make a terrific thriller, actually, whether for the cinema or television.


  15. I found it ugly and boring. About half way through, I decided I didn’t give a hoot who killed the Captain. I found the sex sickening and did not read any more of the blow to blow sexual encounters. Read the last few pages out of curiosity and not surprised at the ending. I know it has been lauded as having great literary merit, but I did not find it readable. I am happy to be called a Philistine.


  16. So pleased I found this from your Meyer review – sounds excellent! Have a feeling after reading this I’ll be pursuing more of Malla Nunn’s book too – appreciating you first posted this in 2011 have you read/reviewed others now?


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