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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Blessed Are the Dead, by Malla Nunn ($14)

 This is the third in Malla Nunn's series set in South Africa, featuring police detectives Emmanuel Cooper and Samuel Shabalala.

Cooper’s mother was Afrikaner and his father British. Shabalala is Zulu. This story takes place in 1953, a few years after apartheid was legislated. There are several authors who have placed their stories within the context of apartheid. Set in the past or the present, all the stories have been moving, including this one.

Malla Nunn weaves great character texture throughout her books. Of course Cooper is flawed: He's stubborn, societally adrift, and marred by his past. Book two, Let the Dead Lie, showed that effusively. It chronicled his journey through the hell created by the racial stratification. Blessed Are the Dead tells the story of his road to social redemption, if not philosophical clarity and inner peace.

Serving a sentence in police purgatory, Cooper and Shabalala get sent to all the unimportant cases. Finally, with the “help” of Colonel van Niekerk, alternately Cooper's mentor and nemesis, they draw a murder in a small village at the foot of the imposing Drakensberg Mountains, about four hours outside of Durban. The body of a young Zulu woman has been found. She was the daughter of a local chieftain and a maid in a white household. The suspect pool is wide and the investigative footing is dangerous.

No one is happy to see the detectives. The Zulus would prefer their own form of justice, but the white man's law rules. The police constable in the closest village to the killing is unhelpful and strangely absent during critical periods of time. The village doctor, a white woman, is likewise reluctant and unwelcoming. The rich, white family for whom the young woman worked would just as soon run the detectives off the range and back to Durban. Nunn does a wonderful job peeling away the obfuscation to reveal everyone's secrets. Some, of course, have nothing to do with the murder and everything to do with the nature of what it means to be human.

I was not totally sold on the second book, but it proved to be a necessary passage in Nunn's fascinating overarching script of how a corrupt state policy has an impact on people and how some of them find extraordinary strength to do what's right.

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