Book Review: A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn

A Beautiful Place To Die (Detective Emmanuel Cooper, #1)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Blurb
“In her “stellar” (Publishers Weekly) debut, Nunn takes readers to Jacob’s Rest, a tiny town on the border between South Africa and Mozambique. It is 1952, and new apartheid laws have recently gone into effect. When an Afrikaner police officer is murdered, the powerful police Security Branch, dedicated to flushing out black communist radicals, pre-empts Detective Emmanuel Cooper’s investigation. But Cooper isn’t interested in political expediency and has never been one for making friends. Instead, he strikes out on his own, following a trail of clues that lead him to uncover a shocking forbidden love and the imperfect life of a man whose relationships with the residents of the town he ruled were more complicated and more human than anyone could have imagined.

A talented writer who reads like a brilliant combination of Raymond Chandler and Graham Greene, Nunn has crated a morally complex and richly authentic tale of murder, passion, corruption, and the corrosive double standard that defined an apartheid nation.”

Please accept my apologies in advance for the length of this review – being an ex-South African there was a lot of ground to cover, my thoughts were profound and I really wanted to include a bit of history about the Apartheid Regime at the end.

A white Police Captain is murdered and Emmanuel Cooper, a white Detective, is called in to investigate.

As we accompany Emmanuel on both his investigative journey and the “kaffir paths” winding through the veldt in the small town of Jacobs Rest, and meeting a lot of the town’s residents, we see the Security Branch (a separate division of the police force assigned to investigate the “communist” aspect of the murder case) continuously attempting to deter his investigation, which ultimately leads to Emmanuel being shut out of their investigation totally. So, it is no wonder that Emmanuel covertly continues his own investigation with the assistance of Constable Shabalala, a black Zulu-Shangaan, into the “personal” aspect of the case.

Emmanuel desires justice and his refusal to dabble in unethical behaviour creates a character with strong moral fibre. In his pursuit of this result, he discovers that many people in the town are keeping their own secrets – Who is the “old Jew” really? What role does Louis Pretorius (one of the deceased Captain’s six sons) have to play in all this? Why is Davida Ellis such a “timid little mouse”? But, perhaps the most important one of all – Was the white Captain a “staunch” follower of the Apartheid Laws such as the “Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act” and the “Immorality Act” or was he living a secret life?

My Thoughts
This book was originally recommended to me by some Australian friends on Goodreads, but before that, I had never heard of Malla Nunn, even though we were both born on the same Continent, in neighbouring countries.

The tale is morally complex, evocative, as well as provocative, and one with which I can relate to and sympathise with as a “white” person born into so-called “privilege” in that era. Having borne witness to the ravages that Apartheid wrought upon the non-whites in South Africa whilst I grew up, it is a heritage passed on to me by my maternal great-grandparents who immigrated there from Portugal in the early 1900’s – through no fault of my own, but one of which I am not proud.

With Malla Nunn’s obvious first-hand knowledge of Apartheid South Africa, she has developed realistic characters whose voices ring true of that period in the country’s history and, having myself been brought up in a home with an Afrikaans father and an English mother, I was exposed to “both sides of the coin”. Thankfully the good side won out and I was not one of those white children who were brought up to hate the other races.

I really fell in love with Emmanuel’s character. Although white, he doesn’t come across as having a single racist bone in his body and both his respectful treatment of Constable Shabalala and his gentleness with Davida Ellis, one of the “mixed-race” characters, stirred something deep in my heart. The way in which Malla portrays the “coloured” voices is consistent with her heritage, and in quite a few places, I imagined myself in conversation with the character being depicted. So, too, the manner in which she describes the South African veldt – I could almost smell the woodsmoke and feel the dry, dusty air!

For me, this was an emotional but enjoyable story. A fast-paced read with a stirring plot woven together by plenty of twists and turns, should you choose to read it, it is bound to keep you enthralled and offer you a glimpse into the fact that not all white South Africans of the Apartheid era supported their policies. Of course, it raised a deeply personal question in my mind and probably one which will never be answered - “Was Apartheid worth it?”.

About the Author
Malla Nunn was born in Swaziland, Southern Africa, and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. She is a filmmaker with three award-winning films to her credit and
A Beautiful Place To Die is her first novel. The second novel in her Emmanuel Cooper series is Let The Dead Lie.

A Bit of History on the Apartheid Regime
(excerpt taken from

“In 1948 the National Party led by Rev Dr DF Malan came to power with a manifesto of apartheid (separate development). Although discriminatory policies already existed, this was to be a systematic categorisation and segregation of the population, enshrined in law, with the white group accorded privilege and power. His belief in racial superiority is expressed in the following quotation:

'We Afrikaners are not the work of man but the creation of God. It is to us that millions of semi-barbarous blacks look for guidance, justice and the Christian way of life”

Legislation was soon enacted that required all residents to register their race - a particularly significant law given the very mixed heritage of so many Capetonians. The National Party intended to segregate whites and coloureds and expel all Africans from the Western Cape to 'homelands'. Under the 'Group Areas Act' suburbs of the city were zoned according to race; inevitably the privileged and desirable areas were zoned 'white'.

Apartheid entered the Post Office in the form of separate queues in 1949. In the same year the Prohibitions of Mixed Marriages Act was published and in 1950 the Immorality Act. These acts prevented coloureds or Indians having sexual relations with whites, in the same way that Africans were already prohibited. Such rules brought heartbreak - one 20 year old coloured youth who could not legally marry his pregnant white girlfriend committed suicide.

In 1950 the Population Registration Act officially divided South Africa into 'White', 'Coloured', 'Asian' or 'Native' (African). It was mandatory for all Capetonians over 16 years to carry Identity cards specifying their racial group. Those who were previously able to enjoy an ambiguous racial status were assigned a race, and given no choice in this. In a subsequent act 'Chinese' and 'Indians' were declared subgroups of the category 'Coloured', as were some 'Malays' but only if they lived within particular areas (Wynberg, Simon's Town or Bellville).

Later one could appeal against one's racial classification, and if one could not prove one's ancestry then a physical examination of hair, nails and eyelids was undertaken. There were many controversial cases in Cape Town, with some Coloureds seeking to prove they were white. In one absurd case a family was split as one twin was re-classified white while her sister remained coloured.

From 1951 a permit system was established that controlled property transfers and changes of occupancy from members of one 'race' to another. This had serious effects on the businesses of many African and coloured shop-owners and artisans, who were suddenly prevented from operating in 'white' areas. In the early 1950s there was increasing pressure on Capetonians to move voluntarily into areas designated to their racial classification, as the authorities tried to avoid having to use force.”


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