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Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Beautiful Place to Die, by Malla Nunn ($15)

In the early 1970s, South African James McClure introduced the world to the day-to-day impact of apartheid in his series about an Afrikaner and Zulu police detective partnership and friendship. (After many years out of print, the first book in that series, The Steam Pig, is set to be re-released soon.) Apartheid, the legal separation of South Africa into racial classes, separate and unequal, became law in 1948. It was more than just a separation of non-whites and whites; there were gradations even within that. English and Afrikaners were both white groups, but the enmity between them went back to the time of the Zulu and Boer wars more than half a century earlier. Non-whites were blacks, coloreds, and Indians. Coloreds were of mixed heritage, some with dark skin and some with white. Blacks were mostly Zulus. There were social stigmas attached to each sub-group. Whatever the gradations, black and white did not mix, or else.

It is into this tangled brew of historical abomination that Malla Nunn, another South African writer, has plopped her intriguing mystery. It is 1952 and Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper, registered as an English/Afrikaner, has been sent to the rural community of Jacob's Rest to investigate the death of Captain Pretorius, the local police chief, Afrikaner, and resident looming presence.

There are so many choices for motive: political – was he murdered by a Communist; racial – was he murdered by a black Communist; or familial – was it one of his three ox-necked, high-strung, hair trigger-tempered white supremacist sons or perhaps his "changeling" son, who bore little resemblance to his ox-necked, high-strung, etc. father and whose Zulu name translates to hangs-out-with-his-mother.

Cooper's progress is impeded by a delegation from the Security Branch, a ham-fisted detail determined to save South Africa from Communism, with the ultimate authority to acquire knowledge in any way they wish. They are determined to link the captain's death to a Communist insurgent, and relegate Cooper to finding the man who has been peeping on and then molesting some of the colored girls in the town.

Suspecting that there might be a relationship between the molestations and the captain's murder, it is worth Cooper's life to keep his investigation under the radar. He is helped by the cool and mysterious Shabalala, a Zulu police officer and childhood friend of the dead captain, and the equally cool and mysterious Zweigman, a Jewish doctor who has chosen to live in Jacob's Rest as a storekeeper in the colored community. There is a sense of deeper waters and future stories about both Shabalala and Zweigman.

With each startling revelation about Captain Pretorius and many of the other residents of Jacob's Rest, Nunn's story twists away from a simple solution to a more thoughtful tale of the inability of the law to negotiate and command human emotions. We can read this story with a growing numbness or we can appreciate that Nunn has fastened her grip on a basic flaw in our human makeup, and has created a fascinating and powerful tale.

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