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A Beautiful Place To Die – Book Review

What was it about the town of Jacob’s Rest? The heat, the isolation, or maybe just the proximity of the race groups appeared to make the exercise of power over others irresistible. – from A Beautiful Place to Die, page 274 –

Detective Emmanuel Cooper is a man with a dark and secretive past. He is also an English detective who is sent alone to investigate the murder of  a white police captain whose body is found partially submerged in a river between South Africa and Mozambique. Cooper’s job gets a little more difficult when members of the police Security Branch arrive on the scene. Their focus is on Communists and a political motivation for the murder, but Cooper thinks the real culprit is a little closer to home. As he begins his own parallel investigation into the crime, the divide between blacks and whites, the rich and the working class, grows a bit more narrow. Before long Cooper is uncovering questionable activities and a smoldering sexual tension in the small border town of Jacob’s Rest.

Set in the 1950s during  the first uneasy years of apartheid when racial discrimination became institutionalized, Malla Nunn’s simmering crime novel explores the consequences of allowing race to become the dividing line between justice and injustice. The police Security Branch represents the will of the Afrikaner National Party, a majority party which grabbed power in the wake of South Africa’s independence from England. The apartheid laws of  1948, prohibited marriage between non-whites and whites, and sanctioned ‘white-only’ jobs. By 1950, the Population Registration Act required that all South Africans be racially classified into one of three categories: white, black (African), or colored (of mixed decent). Nunn introduces those restrictive and racist laws into her novel, giving them the central focus in the plot of A Beautiful Place to Die.

The first half of the novel introduces multiple characters and offers readers several threads of the underlying mystery. The pace in the latter half of the book picks up considerably and I found myself completely engaged in the plot and the characters’ lives.

Malla Nunn, who was born in South Africa, writes with authenticity about the region. Her descriptions of the veldt and dusty landscape captured me. Nunn’s characters are well-developed and there is a sense of doom and trepidation which overlays their lives. No one is quite as they seem, including Detective Cooper who has his own secrets to hide.

A Beautiful Place to Die was nominated for the 2010 Edgar Prize and it is certainly worthy of that nomination. Taut, skillfully penned, and brimming with the heat of political and sexual tension, this is a novel which will appeal to historical fiction fans as well as those who enjoy a well-crafted mystery.

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FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

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13 Comments

  1. April 29, 2012    

    This sounds like a winner in terms of fast-paced plot by the end.

    • May 1, 2012    

      Serena, It really builds to the conclusion.

  2. April 29, 2012    

    I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize apartheid was such a recent part of South African history. This book sounds fascinating.

    • May 1, 2012    

      Kathy, although I was aware of apartheid, this book gives the reader a deeper appreciation of its impact. That is one of the things I love about historical fiction…it always teaches me something I did not know!

  3. April 29, 2012    

    This one is definitely going on the to-read list!

    • May 1, 2012    

      Hope you love it, Carrie!

  4. April 30, 2012    

    Also adding this one to my list.

  5. April 30, 2012    

    I really like the setting of this book and it sounds like the descriptions are lush and really well written, which makes me even more excited about it. I will have to check this out when I can. It sounds excellent and like something that I would enjoy a lot. Fantastic review today!

    • May 1, 2012    

      Thanks, Heather – hope this will be something you’ll eventually enjoy!

  6. April 30, 2012    

    Oh, this sounds fabulous! I remember seeing it when the Edgars were announced, but I never got around to reading it. I’ve been craving a literary mystery while I await Attica Locke’s new novel this fall, and this one sounds perfect.

    • May 1, 2012    

      Carrie: I would definitely define this as a literary mystery…well written, good character development, underlying (deeper) themes than just the mystery itself.

  7. May 1, 2012    

    Great review, Wendy. You remind me that I have to pick up the second book in Nunn’s series(Let the Dead Lie) from my library!

    • May 1, 2012    

      Oh, I’ll have to keep my eye out for her second book, Gavin..thanks for the heads up!

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