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by Malla Nunn

Pub Date: Jan. 6th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4165-8620-3
Publisher: Atria

A white police officer is mysteriously murdered on the South Africa-Mozambique border in 1952, shortly after the apartheid system has been put in place.

Race is a major issue in the narrative; Afrikaners and people of color eye each other warily owing to the recent advent of laws that prescribe how whites and blacks can and can’t interact. Detective Emmanuel Cooper, of English descent and hence an outsider, begins the investigation at the behest of his boss in Johannesburg and discovers that Captain Willem Pretorius, the murder victim, had some dark secrets that would be far from welcome news to his pious wife and volatile sons. (One of the latter is described as being “seventy percent muscle and thirty percent combustible fuel.”) Cooper is assisted in his investigation by Constable Shabalala, a Zulu who had great respect for Pretorius. Also supposedly aiding the investigation are the ironhanded martinets of the Security Branch; the detective marvels that one of their number, Piet Lapping, can so easily “mix an afternoon of torture with harmless banter.” The Specials are convinced that the murder was politically motivated and the killer must of necessity have been a communist. The author sets his story in Jacob’s Rest, a small village with rigid racial distinctions. Inhabiting an uncomfortable middle space is Mr. Zweigman, a small shopkeeper with a mysteriously deep knowledge of medicine. Nunn deftly moves between the sordid and the honorable; Cooper operates in a world of pornography, race-baiting, religious fanaticism and torture, yet there’s nobility in his attempt to understand what governs race relations in South Africa and to solve the murder of a repulsive but powerful member of the community. To do that, he must bridge divisions that whites in particular have a vigorous interest in maintaining.

Nunn’s dexterous debut works well on many levels.