Friday, July 27, 2012

South African Mystery Series from Malla Nunn -- And Some Notes

Debut novel
UK cover, 2nd book
Thanks to the Atria bus tour earlier this year, during which the publisher distributed a "sampler" of first chapters from about a dozen authors, I ordered the first two books by South African-born author Malla Nunn. And they were hard to find in first printing -- apparently they weren't printed in large quantity then. But whatever printing you can get hold of, these are worth grabbing. In this case, the series is definitely better read from the first book onward. Nunn's third book, Blessed Are the Dead, was released this June.

A quick summary: Book 1 is A Beautiful Place to Die. Meet "English" police officer Detective Emmanual Cooper. He's good at the dance of politics and bias involved in his job -- which lets his partner in investigation, black Constable Shabalala, conduct much of the field work needed to assess the murder of an Afrikaner police chief. The murdered man's son explains Shabalala by saying he's "half Zulu, half Shangaan. Pa said the Shangaan part could track any animal, and the Zulu part was sure to kill it."

That mingling of respect and racism gives an instant view of 1952 South Africa, with apartheid a way of life and social structure a force of determination for life and action. Nunn draws in the added awkwardness of the local Jew as well, a refugee and discard from Europe.

But what makes her books sing is the dynamic and layered relationship of Cooper and Shabala, one that deepens and resonates through the difficult investigation. Flawlessly written, without a hint of "first book" to it, A Beautiful Place to Die goes to the top of my summer list of good reads.

US cover, 2nd book
And Nunn's second book, Let the Dead Lie, goes even deeper. This time Cooper has lost his status as a white police officer and is in personal danger, with his career deep-sixed and the possibility of career redemption elusive and probably costing more than his integrity can afford. Although the publisher blurbs on the book feature only Cooper, it's his connections with Shabalala and other South African outsiders -- who are on the inside of their own groups -- that sing. And that, in the long run, offer him a chance, if he can be both courageous and clever, to again work for the police force officially.

Nunn allows delicately timed insights into Shabalala's life too, pairing them expertly with Cooper's and portraying the charged and complex inner and outer landscape of South Africa with such intensity that I could almost catch the scent of the city -- and of the veldt.

Now I'm going to start the 2011 Malla Nunn book, Blessed Are the Dead. Probably I should warn my husband: This mystery is going to take priority. Malla Nunn's crime fiction is a terrific discovery, and I'm going to be a bit distracted from ordinary life while I'm reading the next book. (But isn't that what a good mystery is for?)

A few notes:
*Nunn now lives in Australia and is also a filmmaker. For her publisher's "interview" with her, click here. For a video on her filmmaking, click here and look for the VIDEO section.
*In the US, Let the Dead Lie was issued as a paperback original. For a copy of the hardcover (the true first), you need to look at UK markets.
*For another South African apartheid detection series, set in the 1970s but written earlier than Nunn's, see James McClure (review here).
Yours truly, and the Atria author bus.
*And for crime fiction set in "modern" South Africa, try Jassy Mackenzie (review here).

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