Book Review: Memorable, pacey and illuminating

2010-12-30 14:14

Aformer police detective doing undercover surveillance for a fee stumbles upon a dead child. He is suspected of the crime and has 48 hours to find the real killer.

The plot is hardly unique, but the novel goes well beyond the scope of the potboiler.

The ­author is filmmaker Malla Nunn, the setting is Durban in the early 1950s and the detective, ­Emmanuel Cooper, has not only been forced by the Special Branch to resign from the South African Police, but has chosen to be reclassified – from white to “coloured”.

Nunn produced what was arguably the best crime novel of 2009, A Beautiful Place to Die, a fast-paced look at life and death in a dorp on the Mozambique border.

In this book, Let The Dead Lie, the place is different but the theme is the same.

Born in Swaziland, she sets her books in South Africa as apartheid laws begin to take hold. Not surprisingly, race and politics, and the politics of race, permeate the pages.

Cooper, for example, the detective drummed out of the force, isn’t quite sure who his father was: the brutal white man who killed his mother, or his mother’s employer, the Cape Malay proprietor of All Hours Trading.

But he knows that his reclassification means he may never again ­contact his sister, still classified as white and a teacher at a posh boarding school for girls.

The murdered child is a poor white lad, a fixture on the docks where he carried messages and fetched snacks. Cooper finds a pair of Indian brothers near the body – their status as wannabe gangsters less damning than their race.

In a country cut by law and ­custom into separate, hugely ­unequal communities, it’s not ­only race that drives the story.

Cooper’s employer, his former police boss, Major van Niekerk, is uncomfortably positioned – he is an Afrikaner exiled to a very English Durban.

His response to the thinly veiled contempt he encounters is to hire Cooper to get the goods on crooked Durban policemen ­involved in a smuggling ring – which is what Cooper is doing on the docks when the boy is ­murdered.

There’s an Indian crime boss, a black American preacher, a beautiful former barmaid of uncertain classification and the odd white prostitute, plus some ever-present Special Branch heavies.

There are several murders, ­beatings, car chases ... the sort of elements one expects in crime novels.

Nunn tells a story beautifully; her characters are memorable and the pace is steady. Altogether, the book gives one a fascinating picture of Durban at mid-century, illuminating a mercifully vanished world.

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