This is a wonderful first novel, fitting in well with work by other newer writers like Tana French and Sophie Hannah. Like the work by those two ladies, it’s layered, complex, and beautifully written. Set in South Africa in the 50’s as the strict rules of apartheid were being enforced by draconian measures, the similarities between the Nazis and the Afrikaners can’t be overlooked. Nunn even supplies a Jewish refugee in the tiny village of Jacob’s Rest to make her point. Detective Emmanuel Cooper is called in from Johannesburg to take over the case of a murdered white police officer, but before he makes much headway the Security Branch is called in, and he’s put on a tangential investigation.
Nunn is expert at peeling apart the racial layers of African society in 1952, starting at the “top” with the Dutch Afrikaner family of the murdered officer, Captain Pretorius. On the surface his bland, blonde family of sons, with the exception of the youngest, Louis, appear to be vicious bullies, intent on using their family’s power to control the town. Cooper is paired in his investigation with a native Zulu officer, Shabalala, who had in fact grown up with the dead captain, something Cooper discovers only midway through the investigation. His first roadblock is the morgue: there isn’t one, and the doctor has been called away, so Cooper goes to the “underground” doctor, a man called by everyone in town the “old Jew”. He of course is a refugee from the holocaust who is running a shop but in his other life was a doctor. He performs the initial examination on the dead captain, setting into a motion a complicated dance whereby he and Detective Cooper eventually learn to trust one another. But it takes awhile.
As the Security Branch officers – also blonde bullies – pursue a “communist” who they feel is guilty (and they obtain a confession from him), Emmanuel and Shabalala are on the track of a peeping tom who became a molester. Because he “peeped” only at black women, the case was given only cursory interest by the police. Meanwhile, Emmanuel’s superior officer back in Johannesburg tells him to find the true guilty party, thus saving his career and his bosses’. Using real detective methods instead of the brutal beatings administered by the Security Branch, he uncovers a web of family lies and connections that are also tied to race. None of what he uncovers makes him any safer, and the end of the novel is a real nail-biter.
Nunn’s resolution owes more to a psychological writer like Ruth Rendell, as it’s family and relationship based, but the twist is the 50’s politics and racial atmosphere of South Africa. The only real caveat I had with the book is that Emmanuel – a somewhat traumatized WWII vet (a la Ian Rutledge in Charles Todd’s fine series) – is so racially open and sensitive. It serves the plot, certainly, but I’m not sure it’s absolutely of the time period. It seemed a bit of an anachronism to me, and that’s one of the trickier things about any historical novel. That said, this is a fine book, beautifully written with complicated and layered characters whose motives are never obvious, but instead obscure and difficult to ascertain. The descriptions of the African countryside are lovely, and A Beautiful Place to Die is heartbreakingly illustrated. This is well worth a read.