Award-winning screenwriter Malla Nunn delivers a stunning and darkly romantic crime novel set in 1950s apartheid South Africa, featuring Detective Emmanuel Cooper -- a man caught up in a time and place where racial tensions and the raw hunger for power make life very dangerous indeed.
In a morally complex tale rich with authenticity, 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, dividing a nation into black and white while supposedly healing the political rifts between the Afrikaners and the English. Tensions simmer as the fault line between the oppressed and the oppressors cuts deeper, but it's not until an Afrikaner police officer is found dead that emotions more dangerous than anyone thought possible boil to the surface.
When Detective Emmanuel Cooper, an Englishman, begins investigating the murder, his mission is preempted by the powerful police Security Branch, who are dedicated to their campaign to flush out black communist radicals. But Detective Cooper isn't interested in political expediency and has never been one for making friends. He may be modest, but he radiates intelligence and certainly won't be getting on his knees before those in power. 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 Captain Pretorius, a man whose relationships with the black and coloured residents of the town he ruled were more complicated and more human than anyone could have imagined.
The first in her Detective Emmanuel Cooper series, A Beautiful Place to Die marks the debut of a talented writer who reads like a brilliant combination of Raymond Chandler and Graham Greene. It is a tale of murder, passion, corruption, and the corrosive double standard that defined an apartheid nation. I
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Malla Nunn was born in Swaziland, South Africa, and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. She is a filmmaker with three award-winning films to her credit and is currently at work on her next novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
South Africa, September 1952.
Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper switched off the engine and looked out through the dirty windscreen. He was in deep country. To get deeper he'd have to travel back in time to the Zulu wars. Two Ford pickup trucks, a white Mercedes, and a police van parked to his right placed him in the twentieth century. Ahead of him a group of black farmworkers stood along a rise with their backs toward him. The hard line of their shoulders obscured what lay ahead.
In the crease of a hot green hill, a jumpy herd boy with fifteen skinny cows stared at the unusual scattering of people in the middle of nowhere. The farm was a genuine crime scene after all -- not a hoax as district headquarters had thought. Emmanuel got out of the car and lifted his hat to a group of women and children sitting in the shade of a wild fig tree. A few of them politely nodded back, silent and fearful. Emmanuel checked for his notebook, his pen, and his handgun, mentally preparing for the job.
An old black man in tattered overalls stepped out from the band of shade cast by the police van. He approached with his cloth cap in his hand.
"You the baas from Jo'burg?" he asked.
"That's me," Emmanuel said. He locked the car and dropped the keys into his jacket pocket.
"Policeman says to go to the river." The old man pointed a bony finger in the direction of the farmworkers standing along the ridge. "You must come with me, please, ma' baas."
The old man led the way. Emmanuel followed and the farmworkers turned at his approach. He drew closer to them and scanned the row of faces to try to gauge the mood. Beneath their silence he sensed fear.
"You must go there, ma' baas." The old man indicated a narrow path that snaked through tall grass to the banks of a wide, shining river.
Emmanuel nodded his thanks and walked down the dirt trail. A breeze rustled the underbrush and a pair of bullfinches flew up. He smelled damp earth and crushed grass. He wondered what waited for him.
At the bottom of the path he came to the edge of the river and looked across to the far side. A stretch of low veldt shimmered under clear skies. In the distance a mountain range broke the horizon into jagged blue peaks. Pure Africa. Just like the photos in English magazines that talked up the benefits of migration.
Emmanuel began a slow walk of the riverbank. Ten paces along he saw the body.
Within reach of the river's edge, a man floated facedown with his arms spread out like a parachute diver in free fall. Emmanuel clocked the police uniform instantly. A captain. Wide shouldered and big boned with blond hair cut close to the skull. Small silver fish danced around what looked like a bullet wound in the head and another gash torn into the middle of the man's broad back. A thicket of reeds held the body fast against the current.
A blood-stiffened blanket and an overturned lantern with a burned-out wick marked a fishing spot. Bait worms had spilled from a jam can and dried on the coarse sand.
Emmanuel's heart hammered in his rib cage. He'd been sent out solo on the murder of a white police captain.
"You the detective?" The question, in Afrikaans, had the tone of a surly boy addressing the new schoolmaster.
Emmanuel turned to face a lanky teenager in a police uniform. A thick leather belt anchored the blue cotton pants and jacket to the boy's narrow hips. Wisps of downy hair grew along his jawline. The National Party policy of hiring Afrikaners into public service had reached the countryside.
"I'm Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper." He held out his hand. "Are you the policeman in charge of this case?"
The boy flushed. "Ja, I'm Constable Hansie Hepple. Lieutenant Uys is on holiday in Mozambique for two more days and Captain Pretorius...well...he's...he's gone."
They looked over at the captain, swimming in the waters of eternity. A dead white hand waved at them from the shallows.
"Did you find the body, Constable Hepple?" Emmanuel asked.
"No." The Afrikaner youth teared up. "Some kaffir boys from the location found the captain this morning...he's been out here all night."
Emmanuel waited until Hansie got control of himself. "Did you call the Detective Branch in?"
"I couldn't get a phone line to district headquarters," the boy policeman explained. "I told my sister to try till she got through. I didn't want to leave the captain by himself."
A knot of three white men stood farther up the riverbank and took turns drinking from a battered silver flask. They were big and meaty, the kind of men who would pull their own wagons across the veldt long after the oxen were dead.
Emmanuel motioned toward the group. "Who are they?"
"Three of the captain's sons."
"How many sons does the captain have?" Emmanuel imagined the mother, a wide-hipped woman who gave birth between baking bread and hanging up the laundry.
"Five sons. They're a good family. True volk."
The young policeman dug his hands into his pockets and kicked a stone across the bank with his steel-capped boot. Eight years after the beaches of Normandy and the ruins of Berlin, there was still talk of folk-spirit and race purity out on the African plains.
Emmanuel studied the murdered captain's sons. They were true Afrikaners, all right. Muscled blonds plucked straight from the victory at the Battle of Blood River and glorified on the walls of the Voortrekker Monument. The captain's boys broke from their huddle and walked toward him.
Images from Emmanuel's childhood flickered to life. Boys with skin white as mother's milk from the neck down and the elbow up. Noses skewed from fights with friends, the Indians, the English, or the coloured boys cheeky enough to challenge their place at the top.
The brothers came within shoving distance of Emmanuel and stopped. Boss Man, the largest of the brothers, stood in front. The Enforcer stood to his right with his jaw clenched. Half a step behind, the third brother stood ready to take orders from up the chain of command.
"Where's the rest of the squad?" Boss Man demanded in rough-edged English. "Where are your men?"
"I'm it," Emmanuel said. "There is no one else."
"You joking me?" The Enforcer added finger pointing to the exchange. "A police captain is murdered and Detective Branch send out one lousy detective?"
"I shouldn't be out here alone," Emmanuel conceded. A dead white man demanded a team of detectives. A dead white policeman: a whole division. "The information headquarters received was unclear. There was no mention of the victim's race, sex, or occupation -- "
The Enforcer cut across the explanation. "You have to do better than that."
Emmanuel chose to focus on the Boss Man.
"I was working the Preston murder case. The white couple shot in their general store," he said. "We tracked the killer to his parents' farm, an hour west of here, and made an arrest. Major van Niekerk called and asked me to check a possible homicide -- "
"'Possible homicide'?" The Enforcer wasn't about to be sidelined. "What the hell does that mean?"
"It means the operator who logged the call got one useful piece of information from the caller -- the name of the town, Jacob's Rest. That was all we had to work with."
He didn't mention the word "hoax."
"If that's true," the Enforcer said, "how did you get here? This isn't Jacob's Rest, it's Old Voster's Farm."
"An African man waved me off the main road, then another one showed me to the river," Emmanuel explained, and the brothers shared a puzzled look. They had no idea what he was talking about.
"Can't be." The Boss Man spoke directly to the boy constable. "You told them a police captain had been murdered, hey, Hansie?"
The teenager scuttled behind Emmanuel. His breathing was ragged in the sudden quiet.
"Hansie..." The Enforcer smelled blood. "What did you tell them?"
"I..." The boy's voice was muffled. "I told Gertie she must say everything. She must explain how it was."
"Gertie...Your twelve-year-old sister made the call?"
"I couldn't get a line," Hansie complained. "I tried..."
"Domkop." The Boss Man stepped to the side, in order to get a clear swing at Hansie. "You really that stupid?"
The brothers moved forward in a hard line, cabbage-sized fists at the ready. The constable grabbed a handful of Emmanuel's jacket and burrowed close to his shoulder.
Emmanuel stood his ground and kept eye contact with the head brother. "Giving Constable Hepple a smack or two will make you feel better, but you can't do it here. This is a crime scene and I need to start work."
The Pretorius boys stopped. Their focus shifted to the body of their father floating in the clear water of the river.
Emmanuel stepped into the silence and held out his hand. "Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper. I'm sorry for the loss of your father."
"Henrick," the Boss Man said, and Emmanuel felt his hand disappear into a fleshy paw. "This here is Johannes and Erich, my brothers."
The younger brothers nodded a greeting, wary of the city detective in the pressed suit and green-striped tie. In Jo'burg he looked smart and professional. On the veldt with men who smelled of dirt and diesel fuel, he was out of place.
"Constable Hepple says there are five of you." He returned the brothers' stares and noticed the areas of redness around their eyes and noses.
"Louis is at home with our ma. He's too young to see this." Henrick took a swig from the flask and turned away to hide his tears.
Erich, the Enforcer, stepped forward. "The army is letting Paul out on compassionate leave. He'll be home tomorrow or the day after."
"What unit is he in?" Emmanuel asked, curious in spite of himself. Six years out of service and his own trousers and shirtsleeves were still ironed sharp enough to please a sergeant major. The army had discharged him, but it hadn't let him go.
"Paul's in intelligence," Henrick said, now flushed pink from the brandy.
Emmanuel calculated the odds that brother Paul belonged to the old guard of the intelligence corps -- the one that broke fingers and smashed heads to extract information. Exactly the kind you didn't want hanging around an orderly murder investigation.
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