Malla Nunn

Emmanuel Cooper - English Detective, South Africa, 1950s

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"A Beautiful Place to Die"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 22, 2009)

"A breeze rustled the underbrush and a pair of bullfinches flew up. He smelled damp earth and crushed grass…At the bottom of the path he came to the edge of a river and looked across to the far side. A stretch of low veldt shimmered under clear skies. In the distance a mountain range broke the horizon into jagged blue peaks. Pure Africa... “A beautiful place to die,” Emmanuel thought as he began a slow walk of the riverbank."

It is 1952 in South Africa, and Det. Sgt, Emmanuel Cooper, an Englishman, has been sent from Johannesburg into the “deep country” outside the city. The police chief of Jacob’s Rest, a small village of “inbred Afrikaner farmers,” has been found floating in the river. Capt. Willem Pretorius, the dead man, has been shot in the back of his head, with a gash in his back, and he just happens to be the son-in-law of Frikkie van Brandenberg, one of the “lions of Afrikaner nationhood.” Though the segregation of the races has been a policy in South Africa for generations, it has become far more stringent under the rule of the current Prime Minister, D. F. Malan, whose Afrikaner government “every year introduces a dozen new ways to break the law.” Under the rule of apartheid, established by the Africaners, blacks are divided by tribe and then required to live in certain areas. Their opportunities to work are controlled, “consorting” is a crime, and they have no human rights.

Though the death of Capt. Pretorius is, at first, thought to have been committed by someone who came across the river from Mozambique and then returned, Det. Cooper sees no evidence that this is the case, and his own list of suspects is all white. The national Security Force soon intervenes in the case, however, on the pretext that the natives, led by communists, may be considering a “defiance campaign” to repeal the segregation laws. Cooper is taken off the case and assigned the task of finding a peeping tom who committed assaults six months earlier. Cooper decides to investigate secretly.

Author Malla Nunn pulls out all the stops here in recreating the fear and tension felt by all residents who are not part of the Afrikaner movement—an “old Jew” who lives in town and hires black women as seamstresses, a man whose life and livelihood are threatened because he is believed to be gay, a man who is beaten nearly to death because he has a collection of pornography, a black man whose garage is fire-bombed because he has worked on a car belonging to a white man, and all the other blacks and mixed race people whose lives are controlled under the Afrikaner ideology. The sons of the dead man and his supporters believe that “We’ve been given a covenant by God to rule over this land and keep it pure. In years to come, the world will look at us for guidance. We will be a beacon.” Seven years after the end of World War II, the defeat of Hitler, the destruction of Berlin, and the deaths of millions, racial purity is still the goal in South Africa.

As Cooper’s lingering traumas and nightmares from World War II combine with events in Jacob’s Rest, his hold on reality is threatened, and as he gets closer to solving the case, his very life is threatened. Though the reader comes to know Cooper to some extent, he is primarily a “man with a white hat,” fighting injustice committed by people whose extreme, quasi-religious ideology causes them to act uniformly as stereotypes. His ability to become friendly with the black community and gain their trust is unrealistic, considering their history, the power wielded by the Security Force, and the danger that their cooperation poses. The hypocrisy of the Afrikaner men as they use powerless black women as sexual slaves is obvious and well known, and the author does not delve into psychological complexities that would give richness to her treatment of this subject and its potential themes.

The first in what has been announced as a series featuring Det. Emmanuel Cooper, this novel is exceptionally cinematic, and one can easily imagine it becoming a feature film, not surprising since the author has already made three award-winning films. The novel’s use of stereotypes would not be such a problem in a film, since great actors can give subtlety and depth to characters through their performances, and good directors and cinematographers can use symbolism, lighting, and cinematic effects to add richness to the treatment of themes. A novel filled with excitement on the level of plot, A Beautiful Place to Die introduces a character who has the potential to grow as the series gains complexity.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 61 reviews


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About the Author:

Malla NunnMalla Nunn was born in Swaziland in Southern Africa. She attended Florence Christian Academy, a "mixed race" boarding school. She migrated with her family to Western Australia in the 1970s where she graduated from the University of Western Australia with a Bachelor of Arts with a double major in English and History. She next moved to the US where she met her future husband before moving back to Australia and wrote and directed short films and corporate videos. Her films "Fade to White," "Sweetbreeze" and "Servant of the Ancestors" have won numerous awards and have shown at international festivals from Zanzibar to New York City. Malla currently lives in Sydney, Australia with her husband and their two children.

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