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by Malla Nunn
Atria, January 2009
384 pages
ISBN: 1416586202

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

What a beautiful setting in which to locate a murder! A fictional one, of course. South Africa in 1952 was still in a very difficult condition for both black and white. The Immorality Act placed a huge burden on the shoulders of the people of South Africa while law enforcement was desperate to locate and convict Communists. It forbade sexual congress between blacks and coloureds and white people. In the days predating DNA identification, it would take more than the colour of a person's skin to decide if anyone were guilty of that crime but while the blacks and coloureds were permitted a "little wife," the same privilege was not, lawfully, permitted a member of the white race, especially if the woman were of a different race.

Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is called to a murder scene. Who would dare to kill a white police captain? Captain Pretorius, an Afrikaner and father of five strapping boys, has been found dead by a river and there is no immediate black suspect to be found. The Zulu constable Samuel Shabalala helps the Detective Sergeant but it is a difficult task for him. The dead captain and he were brought up together so, naturally, there is some kind of bond between them.

The local police, Afrikaner members of the Security Branch, do not wish to cede authority to the Englishman Cooper so they attempt to sideline him by insisting he investigate a past case, one that seems to them to have nothing to do with the current murder investigation. Of course, the best laid plans of heavyweight bullies tend to gang agley and the detective sergeant determines that the case is multilayered and certainly connected to the murder.

Before too long, Cooper discovers valuable, albeit unofficial yet expert, assistance from someone who would rather not brag about his expertise.

This really is an extremely powerful tale. The author has a gift for the language as well as for plotting. I must say that I never saw the punch in the plot approaching me with bare knuckles. I suppose people brighter than I (of whom there is no shortage) might have seen it coming but it certainly took me by surprise.

The characterisation in this piece is excellent. The horrors of the time are made very apparent in the attitudes displayed by the Pretorius brothers. The strange obedience of the people to the unspoken rule of “Do as I say, not as I do” is easily seen as well as the more credible “Might is right.”

As I said earlier, this is an extraordinarily powerful novel, both as a mystery and also as a commentary of the South Africa of the time. I trust Malla Nunn (who is, incidentally, an Australian filmmaker) intends to produce more mysteries for the crime fiction audience, and that right soon.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, August 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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