A Detective Story in the South African Veldt

Cover of "A Beautiful Place to Die: A Nov...

Cover via Amazon

The veldt in South Africa can be lovely, as noted in A Beautiful Place to Die (2009), Malla Nunn’s first entry in her Emmanuel Cooper detective series. While I gave a thumbs down to the detective mystery by James McClure, The Gooseberry Fool, I had a difficult time tearing myself away from the pages of Nunn’s novel.

It opens with the murder of an Afrikaan police captain, found floating in a stream with two bullet wounds.

Sand River (from the air)

Sand River (from the air)

The time is September, 1952. The National Party and its laws separating the races are gaining traction with Afrikaans citizens filling municipal positions and a new Security Branch that is as ruthless as the Nazi SS division gaining power.

The shambok, a whip made of rhino hide, becomes the preferred instrument of punishment for the police and is a presence in all of the South African novels that I read. But Police Captain Pretorius, the victim, is somehow different. His counterpart, the Zulu constable, Shabalala, was his childhood friend, and the two of them are lightning fast runners, who know the paths of the community and the extensive landscape of the veldt. The paths—known by the derogatory term kaffir paths—play an important role as a Peeping Tom uses them prior to murder to spy on “coloured women.”

Emmanuel realizes his precarious situation immediately: the murder of a police captain is a major concern and should have warranted an investigative team, not just one detective. The sons of the captain are not at all happy that an outsider is interfering and assume that their father’s murderer is a native. Reluctantly, they allow the body to be taken to the local hospital for a quick review—but no autopsy—which is where Emmanuel meets two resolute Catholic sisters who inform him that the one doctor is away but that the “old Jew” who runs the store has medical skills. Enter Zweigman, a reluctant but obviously talented physician, whose presence in Jacob’s Rest is mysterious. Emmanuel gets to know many of the community members as he tracks seemingly disparate clues to find the killer. The captain’s wife, for instance, is a fiery Christian, who intends her youngest son, Louis, to become a preacher, unlike his brawny older brothers.

Complicating the situation, Security Branch men arrive on the scene, their one goal to find a native man linked to Communism and ensure that he confesses to the crime. No person of color is really safe from these henchmen or any other whites. The color lines are drawn exactly, even when sexual attraction may cross it. The Anglo characters include Elliott King, who is setting up a private reserve for safaris having acquired the Captain’s historic farm. Add a pornographer to the mix, and the result is a complex mystery that Emmanuel may or may not entangle by the book’s end—if he doesn’t run afoul of the Security Branch goons. To be honest, the actual mystery is not necessarily untangled at novel’s end, but it’s still a good read.

Is pissing on a person a recurring motif in South African literature? This is the second novel I read for my book list in which the protagonist suffers this indignity, Emmanuel cursing an “inbred country Dutchman.” This book is dedicated “For the Ancestors.” I have a sense that the Afrikaans population will be paying for their South African separatist policies for a long time in the literature of the country.

Sunset in South Africa

Sunset in South Africa

A Beautiful Place to Die reminds us that editor Maxwell Perkins told Alan Paton that one of the most important characters in Cry, the Beloved Country was the land of South Africa itself. I’m looking forward to reading more Emmanuel Cooper stories: Let the Dead Lie (2010) and Blessed are the Dead  (2012).


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