malla nunn


While I believe that most crime and mystery fiction readers are attracted to a book because of the character, it is also true that the setting of the book can be a strong draw as well. 




I remember well the first time I encountered Napoleon Bonaparte doing a walkabout crime in Arthur Upfield’s classic traditional mysteries set in Australia.  The same thing was felt the first time I met Joe Leaphorn and Jimmy Chee in the novels of Tony Hillerman set in New Mexico.

In these books, you cannot separate the race of the characters from the landscape.

This was no truer then in the books of James McClure.  His two investigators, Tromp Kramer and Mickey Zondi, could never escape the racial environment of the nation of South Africa.  McClure was a master storyteller and in eight novels written between 1971 and 1991 he opened up a part of the world to his readers that entertained with the mystery but educated with the story without becoming preachy or pejorative.

Now book groups can celebrate a new author who has reached farther back into South African history to write a great new crime novel.  Her name is Malla Nunn and she was born in Swaziland, South Africa.  Now a resident of Sydney, Australia and a filmmaker, she has written her first book, A Beautiful Place to Die.  

Set in 1952, this novel tells the tale of Det. Sgt. Emmanuel Cooper, an Englishman working in a nation that is still dealing with the Afrikaner legacy.  When an Afrikaner police captain named William Pretorius is found floating in a river that separates South Africa from Mozambique, it not only angers his sons who wish to take the law into their own hands.  Worse for Cooper, it interests the Security Branch of the national government.  Pushed to the side and told to investigate a minor crime, Cooper cannot leave the murder alone and receives aid from an unlikely source:  an African police officer who is willing to leave clues like bread crumbs to lead the detective in the right direction.  

This powerful book, extremely well written, has a dynamic pace that should appeal to all readers.  Book discussion groups will not lack for issues to discuss that extend this crime novel far beyond the mystery and into issues of colonialism, nationalism, and race.  




About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.


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