Summary and book reviews of A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn

A Beautiful Place to Die

A Novel

By Malla Nunn

A Beautiful Place to Die
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2009,
    384 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2009,
    384 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Allison Stadd

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Book Summary

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.

1
South Africa, September 1952.

Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper switched off the engine and looked out through the dirty windscreen. He was in deep country. To get deeper he'd have to travel back in time to the Zulu wars. Two Ford pickup trucks, a white Mercedes, and a police van parked to his right placed him in the twentieth century. Ahead of him a group of black farmworkers stood along a rise with their backs toward him. The hard line of their shoulders obscured what lay ahead.

In the crease of a hot green hill, a jumpy herd boy with fifteen skinny cows stared at the unusual scattering of people in the middle of nowhere. The farm was a genuine crime scene after all -- not a hoax as district headquarters had thought. Emmanuel got out of the car and lifted his hat to a group of women and children sitting in the shade of a wild fig tree. A few of them politely nodded back, silent and fearful. Emmanuel checked for his notebook, his pen, and his handgun, mentally preparing ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

The novel's intricately woven plot leaves no leaf unturned, so that the conclusion is believable and narratively satisfying .... By the book's end, readers will find themselves as deeply entwined in the characters' fates as Nunn is herself, and left to ruminate over a number of weighty debates as the tale weaves in double standards, double lives, emotional betrayal, murder, corruption and sexual deviance.   (Reviewed by Allison Stadd).

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Media Reviews
Entertainment Weekly - Chris Nashawaty

this first installment in a proposed series has all the right smells and dialects. But as a character, Cooper's no Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He feels sketchy, half-drawn — not quite alive yet. Next time out, we'll need less poetry about the beauty of the veldt, and more clues about what makes this new sleuth tick. B.

Booklist

It is sometimes hard to keep straight who’s who in the community, but the story is consistently engaging, with revelations right up until the very end.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Smooth prose and a deft plot make this novel a welcome addition to crime fiction set in South Africa.

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Beyond the Book

Apartheid
Apartheid (meaning separateness in Afrikaans*) was a system of legal racial segregation enforced by the National Party government of South Africa between 1948 and 1990.

The new system was a way for the white Afrikaner National Party to ensure their control over both South Africa's economy and social structure. The key was white dominance of blacks and colored (mixed descent) people. Apartheid was born as a political tactic but grew to involve violence and extreme strife.

The apartheid laws were officially enacted in 1948, four years before the events told in A Beautiful Place to Die. Racial discrimination became not simply a mechanism engrained in local customs, but part and parcel of the government. ...

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