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[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel—see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Malla Nunn

Washington Square Press, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

In A Beautiful Place to Die, a Johannesburg detective, Emmanuel Cooper, travels into the “deep country” of South Africa to investigate a hoax in a small town called Jacob’s Rest. It turns out to be a real case, the murder of a white police captain, possibly by a black or “coloured” (meaning, roughly, mixed-race) worker.

Beautiful takes place in the early 1950s, when race relations in SA were strictly governed by the Immorality Act, which explicitly bans interracial sex, and implicitly bans most other kinds of interracial contact.

The themes of race, racism and morality not only serve as emotional undercurrents, they also actively influence the case and Emmanuel’s attempt to solve it. The investigation is further complicated by small-town politics, national politics, laws, secrets, vendettas, bigotry, and more. It’s a case that could cost Emmanuel his career or even his life, and a very solid premise for a novel.

Additionally, Malla Nunn is the best prose stylist among the Edgar nominees…. when she wants to be. The first half of this novel is enjoyable and engrossing, thanks in no small part to her style and the lush, brutal setting. The second half is solid, but bows more to plot and the mechanics of the case, and forgets the fractured soul of the country Emmanuel finds himself in.

Nunn’s at her best when she’s lyrical and emotional, but still tough, when Emmanuel is investigating the case but also staying aware of the complex world around him, and its people. Here are a few examples. The first is a moment when Emmanuel enlists the help of the town’s German ex-doctor, who brings his wife along:

The old Jew and the woman were as different as a gumboot and a ball gown. Zweigman could have been any old man serving behind any dusty counter in South Africa, but the woman belonged to a cool climate place with Persian carpets and a grand piano tucked into the corner.

The word “liebchen” tripped from the woman’s mouth in a repetitive loop that stopped only when Zweigman gently placed his fingers to her lips. They stood close together, surrounded by a sadness that forced Emmanuel onto his back foot.

Here’s the simple, terrific moment when the Security Branch—the vicious secret police—first arrives:

In the churchyard, the Security Branch goons were deep in conversation with Paul Pretorius. They’d be down at the police station this afternoon, pissing in all the corners to make sure everyone knew the investigation was theirs.

And here’s Emmanuel’s response to a joke about him joining the Security Branch:

“I’m not interested in redrawing the map of the world with a thumbscrew and a steel pipe.”

As great writers do, Nunn at her best doesn’t tell you what to think about what happens to her characters, and her best writing leaves you many paths to walk with it. She also—for what it’s worth—excels at scenes of graphic sex and violence. She’s neither shy about it nor enamored of it, and that’s a hard trick to pull off.

Unfortunately, those great qualities take something of a vacation in the second half. The novel changes into a more or less standard detective story, devoid of much of the complexity and nuance the first half promises. It’s not bad by any means, but it loses some of the depth of interaction and life.

Plotwise, Emmanuel doggedly digs deeper and deeper into the secret life of the dead captain, who was Afrikaner “volk,” meaning that he was essentially a white supremacist. Despite the staunch, unwavering race fear of his sons, the captain turns out to be a more complicated man, and something doesn’t quite add up in his family.

In addition to the murder case, there’s a molester on the loose (uninvestigated by the local cops because he only targets non-whites), and all the different parts and parties of the world.

Nunn weaves together a complex plot and sketches out a vivid setting, and in the end we’ve got a quite solid mystery. Beautiful is among the best of the Edgars, but it’s just not quite as compelling as The Last Child.

Similar reads: The only other traditional detective novels nominated for Edgars this year are Nemesis and In the Shadow of Gotham; I can’t recommend either of them. Instead, I’d recommend The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon, which you can read about in this post. For more WWII-era South Africa, there’s always The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay.

Edgar impact: Nunn is the best prose writer in the Edgars, but A Beautiful Place to Die doesn’t quite deliver suspense in the haunting, lasting way The Last Child does. I’d give the Best Novel Edgar to Child, but I wouldn’t be surprised if either book won it (or The Odds, for that matter). I would be surprised if none of those three won it.