A Beautiful Place to Die, Malla Nunn

Fwoo. This was dark. Which I guess is what I should have expected from a murder mystery that takes places in a small town in apartheid South Africa.

The beginning: British police detective Emmanuel Cooper comes to investigate the murder of an Afrikaner police captain in the small town of Jacob’s Rest. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s a murder mystery where the victim is male. This probably happens more often than it seems to me to happen. I don’t read that many murder mysteries, partly because it always seems to be women getting killed, and I get tired of reading about beautiful lady corpses. I can read about alive ladies doing things that alive people do.

When Aarti reviewed A Beautiful Place to Die recently, I was excited to read a murder mystery by a non-American-or-British author and set in a non-American-or-British place, and as I’ve said, a murder mystery featuring a male corpse. From the get-go, it was clear that the book was going to be a nuanced exploration of racial and gender prejudice, and I was excited for it.

The end (spoilers here, but not spoilers about who did the murder because that is actually the least interesting part of this book and that’s not a criticism): If I had to choose, I’d always go with the I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve brought you here today style of ending. I got anxious reading the ending of A Beautiful Place to Die, which gets pretty violent. Since the book is really about prejudice, the violence that simmers throughout the book rarely has to do with the murderer’s identity, and nearly always has to do with preserving one idea of what people and society are like and how they are supposed to behave.

The whole: My favorite thing about A Beautiful Place to Die is also my least favorite thing about it. Malla Nunn is absolutely wonderful at depicting life in a society that not only condones but (openly) institutionalizes racism. The down side of this is that racial violence is very, very hard for me to read about in fiction. The final third of the book features a healthy dose of race-based violence, as well as (threats of) sexual violence, and if I am going to read about that, I would prefer to read about it in nonfiction.

The up side is that it’s amazing to watch Malla Nunn pick apart the assumptions, large and small, that go into creating a racist society. That she does this while writing from the perspective of a white British man is even more impressive–wonderfully, you can see Emmanuel Cooper being forced to confront his own privilege as he struggles to solve the murder of Captain Willem Pretorius:

She made a sound of disbelief low in her throat. “Only a white man would ask a question like that and expect an answer.”

Emmanuel felt like he was seeing her for the first time. The meek coloured girl he could deal with, even ignore, but this furious sharp-eyed woman was something else altogether.

“What’s the question got to do with my being white?”

“Only white people talk about choice like it’s a box of chocolates that everyone gets to pick from. [A white man] walks into this room and I say what to him? ‘No, thank you, sir, but I do not wish to spoil my chances for a good marriage with a good man from my community, so please ma’ baas take yourself back to your wife and family. I promise not to blackmail you if you promise not to punish my family for turning you away. Thank you for asking me. I am honored.’ Tell me, is that how it works for nonwhite women in Jo’burg, Detective?”

What’s particularly good is that discussions like these come up regardless of Cooper’s good intentions. Although he opposes apartheid and even has some personal experience of racial prejudice (his whiteness, the book suggests early on, may be more fragile than it seems), he’s still able to benefit by it, both in the issues he has to worry about day to day, and in the power he has over any black resident of Jacob’s Rest.

When I said, above, that the identity of the murderer was the least interesting aspect of the book, I didn’t mean to imply that the mystery is a bad one. It isn’t. But the book isn’t exactly about trying to solve a murder. It’s about how it would be to try to solve the murder of an upstanding white citizen in a small racist town where certain paths of investigation are acceptable and others are unacceptable, and you can tell which path is which by the skin color of the people being investigated. Malla Nunn does this spectacularly well, and despite bits of her book being quite upsetting to read, I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in this series.

American cover
American cover
British cover
British cover

Cover report: American cover wins. I didn’t choose this one. Both covers were boring to me, so I had Randon choose. He says neither draws him, but he thinks the American cover is better than the British cover.

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  • I remember reading this review on Aarti’s blog and wanting to read this book. I have since, of course, forgotten about it so I’m glad to see the book here. I will have to add to my list now.

    • Gin Jenny

      Do! I thought it was quite good.

  • Oh, you didn’t like the blood splat on the British cover? I did. I mean, I actually did.

    • Gin Jenny

      I don’t hate it, but it felt very generic. Both covers did.

  • I have this book on my wish list. I am glad you also recommend it!

    • Gin Jenny

      I do! I’ll be interested to see your thoughts when you read it.

  • It does sound dark, but the kind of dark that makes you think, not just for titillation. Oh, and a fragile whiteness…does sound like Emmanuel’s character has some secrets.

    • Gin Jenny

      Oh, he does. They come out at the end of the book, but I don’t think it’s the last we’ll have heard about them in the series.

  • That sounds like a book I want to read!

    I like mysteries–at least, the cozy kind, and preferably old ones–and now I am thinking about corpses. I think there are indeed quite a few beautiful lady corpses, but I can also think of many male corpses in various conditions of beauty and ladies who are not beautiful. Ngaio Marsh often seems to go for either men or non-beautiful ladies.

    • Gin Jenny

      Hm, good to know. I think part of the problem is that I don’t read a ton of mysteries, and maybe I just have a skewed idea of who gets killed in them.

  • I added this book to my TBR list thanks to her review as well! I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it even if it was hard to read at times. That’s good to know so I read it when I’m in the right mood and not when I want something light and fast. Great review!

    • Gin Jenny

      Yeah, it’s definitely not a light fast read. I mean, it’s reasonably fast, not at all light.

  • aartichapati

    Yay! I agree with you – the mystery is not really the point here. It is just a vehicle to bring so many other aspects of the story and the setting to life. There is a lot that is difficult to take – and as the series progresses, that doesn’t get any better – but it is such a fantastic exploration of race and gender and how easy it is to fall into the “norm” even if you don’t believe it.

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahaha, I didn’t expect it to get any lighter in tone. I’ve got the second and third books at home ready to read!

  • Sounds like a tough read, I’m not sure I’d be up for something this dark.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yeah, fair enough.

  • Eva

    Yeah, I had the same reaction as you. I’m terribly impressed w Nunn’s writing, but I find reading her books utterly exhausting. I went to pick up the third one a couple months ago and realised I just didn’t have the strength for it at that moment, even though I was sure it would be well worth it.

    I read quite a few mysteries & haven’t noticed that there are more female corpses than male ones. Maybe I’m reading different mysteries though! hehe I almost never read any that are all about serial killer stalking stuff or that would be considered ‘crime fiction’ instead of mystery. I prefer the traditional more puzzle-like kind. That being said, it’s damn challenging to find POC mystery authors who aren’t too hard boiled for me and almost impossible to find international POC ones. I did just finish a fabulous Harlem Ren mystery this am though: The Conjure Man Dies. It was so much fun! (Although pretty much all of the characters, especially all of the protagonists, are men.)

    • Gin Jenny

      I withdraw the complaint then, about female victims! I don’t read enough mysteries, plainly. I am probably just reading reviews of the wrong ones.

      • Wasn’t that a fun one? I loved it. I’ve been looking out for more vintage mysteries like that.

      • Ian

        I had the same reaction, that male victims seem more common to me. But, I realized that most of what I was thinking of were the classic Agatha Christie puzzle mysteries I read as a kid. As I remember, they often made the victim not terribly sympathetic (or at least not compellingly so), so you could concentrate more on the joy of solving the mystery, and the struggle of detective vs. criminal without concern for justice being done getting in the way too much. Given the time period Christie was writing in, maybe making victims men was part of that, to avoid stirring up chivalrous feelings?

  • his whiteness is more fragile than it seems? This draws my mind irresistably to the comic portrait of the “pseudo-negro” in Walker Percy’s novel The Last Gentleman, who had a “white patch” in case he got into trouble.

    • Gin Jenny

      Oh, he disguises himself? Is that the thing? But he keeps a patch of skin that’s not painted dark, so he can prove he’s white if necessary? Hahaha, because this is actually not that different from that.

  • Ela

    Hmm. I’d want to know what a British detective is doing investigating a crime against an Afrikaner resident in South Africa? Has he just moved there?

    That said, it does sound really interesting, despite the violence.

    • Gin Jenny

      I think he’d been there for a while? But I now can’t specifically remember.

  • This sounds very good but I actually like the British cover with the blood much better.

  • Suddenly I seem to come across lots of South African books, which is a good thing, as there’s a country with all sorts of tensions that need to be looked at more closely in fiction. This reminds me of the Donna Leon crime novels, which are murder mysteries, but as much about the difficulty the detective has overcoming the innate corruption of the Italian police force. But I quite like that, the ongoing cultural questioning. Crime fiction ought to be as much about the society that produces the crime as the crime itself.

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