As a break from classic “apartheid genre” books, today’s choice is A Beautiful Place to Die (2012) by Malla Nunn. Nunn has written a tight, contemporary murder mystery set in the early days of apartheid (1952) and blends a strident female voice with her message. Anyone enjoying mysteries will find this one no disappointment. Nunn’s plot twists and keeps her readers guessing while interweaving historical fact and myriad complications of apartheid.
Detective Emmanuel Cooper is sent to solve the bizarre murder of an Afrikaans policeman, apparently loved by all, in the small town of Jacob’s Rest. His English background conflicts with the Security Branch (the government’s seamy underbelly) set on finding a subversive black communist behind every violent attack. The juxtaposition of colour and ethnic interests is compounded by a curious Jewish couple who figure prominently, giving more insight into the philosophy of the architecture of apartheid.
Malla Nunn grew up in Swaziland with the perspective of a person of colour looking across the border into a nightmare of legalized bigotry. Her story rings true, sounding legitimacy in the voices and choices of her characters. She has powerful connection with her female characters: Afrikaans, Jew, and coloured while her male characters tend to be more stereotypical. Mysteries are not as much about character as plot, so her strength in defining women reflects her contemporary sensitivity to the role of women not often found in male mystery writers.
As I read the writers of Subsaharan Africa, there appears a continuum with poets at one end and potboilers at the other. Alan Paton comes to mind as a powerfully poetic voice, while Wilbur Smith is at the other extreme. Paton is to be read and reread, his words savoured and his message taken to heart. Closer to Wilbur Smith, Nunn’s title is the most poetic part of her work. From start to finish the words pull the reader along, almost breathlessly, with little pause for reflection. If action is your choice, with history as the backdrop, you will learn more than you’ll be comfortable with in Nunn’s description of murder under apartheid.