A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn
Series: Detective Emmanuel Cooper #1
Published by Washington Square Press on October 20, 2009
Source: Purchased
Genres: Historical Mystery
Pages: 373
Format: Paperback
Purchase at Bookshop.org or Audible
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four-stars

Award-winning screenwriter Malla Nunn delivers a stunning and darkly romantic crime novel set in 1950s apartheid South Africa, featuring Detective Emmanuel Cooper -- a man caught up in a time and place where racial tensions and the raw hunger for power make life very dangerous indeed.

In a morally complex tale rich with authenticity, Nunn takes readers to Jacob's Rest, a tiny town on the border between South Africa and Mozambique. It is 1952, and new apartheid laws have recently gone into effect, dividing a nation into black and white while supposedly healing the political rifts between the Afrikaners and the English. Tensions simmer as the fault line between the oppressed and the oppressors cuts deeper, but it's not until an Afrikaner police officer is found dead that emotions more dangerous than anyone thought possible boil to the surface.

When Detective Emmanuel Cooper, an Englishman, begins investigating the murder, his mission is preempted by the powerful police Security Branch, who are dedicated to their campaign to flush out black communist radicals. But Detective Cooper isn't interested in political expediency and has never been one for making friends. He may be modest, but he radiates intelligence and certainly won't be getting on his knees before those in power. Instead, he strikes out on his own, following a trail of clues that lead him to uncover a shocking forbidden love and the imperfect life of Captain Pretorius, a man whose relationships with the black and coloured residents of the town he ruled were more complicated and more human than anyone could have imagined.

The first in her Detective Emmanuel Cooper series, A Beautiful Place to Die marks the debut of a talented writer who reads like a brilliant combination of Raymond Chandler and Graham Greene. It is a tale of murder, passion, corruption, and the corrosive double standard that defined an apartheid nation.

A Beautiful Place To Die is a mystery/thriller set in South Africa in 1952 right after the Boer government came to power and instituted laws that restricted relationships between racial groups. Emmanuel Cooper, an English detective, is sent to Jacob’s Nest, a small town near the border of Mozambique where the chief of police, Captain Pretorius, has murdered. Cooper is tasked with investigating the crime but runs up against roadblocks galore. First, Pretorius was not just the police chief, he dominated the town. He was a prominent landowner, he and his family owned or controlled most of the businesses, he felt free to do what he wanted. He was also a model Afrikaaner. Then, the Security Branch arrives, determined to find the killer but to be sure that it’s a killer that suits their needs, effectively pushing Cooper out of the official investigation. Of course, like any good detective, Cooper continues his search.

The mystery itself is well done, with a variety of suspects, motives, and clues. It’s suspenseful, violent, at times graphic, and full of surprises. Jacob’s Rest is not a safe place. Where the book really shines, though, is in the characters and its setting.  The author creates a chilling picture of xenophobia, corruption, and misguided foundational myths set within the picturesque South African landscape. We can feel the heat and see the veld stretching out, hear the hymns and smell the food. The characters blend together to create a picture of misguided privilege, suppressed desire, illicit liaisons, and religious fervor. It’s an absorbing read and I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

About Malla Nunn

Malla Nunn was born in Swaziland, South Africa, and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. She is a filmmaker with three award-winning films to her credit, as well as the author of the Emmanuel Cooper crime series, When the Ground Is Hard, and Sugar Town Queens.

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