I enjoyed 'Beams Falling' so much, by P.M Newton, that I picked up a copy of Malla Nunn's first novel in the Emmanuel Cooper series 'A Beautiful Place To Die' - I noticed that the two writers have been touring together lately and I remembered enjoying Nunn's spot on the crime edition of ABC's The Book Club last year. I really enjoyed this novel. Nunn was born in South Africa, the setting for this 1950s detective series, and her portrayal of the country is both visceral and intimate. I've not travelled to South Africa and it is a culture that I only know from the point of view of white friends who have migrated to Australia. Nunn's work is an education in race relations and cultural mores, wrapped around an engaging whodunnit. Her language is to the point, while addressing the "jigsaw of people" who make up the nation: "A black native woman ambled by with a baby tied to her back and a mixed-race 'coloured' boy pushed a toy car made of wire along the footpath. No English or Afrikaners. Emmanuel and Shabalala had slipped out of white Africa". I noted in Nunn's bio that she has a background in screen writing and it shows in this novel: the description of landscape is given priority and the dialogue, realistic.
Part of the success of 'A Beautiful Place to Die' is the time period of the setting, a time before CSI policing, mobile phones, and Google searches. The crime can be simpler, and can allow the suspects to simmer and develop as people, rather than being undone by a quick internet history search. I think this was true of 'Beams Falling' as well, set in the early 1990s. I imagine that writing modern whodunnits is becoming harder and harder: making a waiting period for DNA test results and staring over the shoulder of people looking at internet search histories suspenseful will be a heavy burden for crime writers.
Nunn's protagonist Emmanuel, a white detective with a mysterious past and residual trauma from the war, is a likeable hero; his sidekick here, Shabalala, a beautifully painted Zulu policeman, is stoic and wise but not overly cliched. Similarly, Zweigman, a Jewish doctor implicated in the crime, is a vivid character without giving in to stereotype. The intimidating Afrikaner sons of the murdered man in the novel are described in terms of meat and muscle throughout and are easily pictured: "A knot of three white men stood further up the river-bank 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". Humour, very gentle humour from Emmanuel, lightens the darker aspects of the plot and adds rather than detracts from the serious message about race relations in South Africa.
My only hesitation with 'A Beautiful Place to Die' - I thought it was fifty or so pages too long and could have been resolved at an earlier point - but otherwise, another fantastic crime novel from a talented Australian writer. I'll be reading more in the series.
*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014