In 1950, South Africa outlawed sexual relations between the races, a follow-up to the 1945 legislation which made marriage between the races illegal. Both laws stayed on the books until 1985. And obsessive love – an excellent topic for Valentine’s Day! – is at the heart of Malla Nunn’s mystery novel, A Beautiful Place to Die. The book is set in 1952 South Africa, and begins with the murder of a Afrikaner police officer. The class and racial lines are not to be crossed, but Detective Emmanuel Cooper, an Englishman, does so in his quest to solve the crime. A true outsider, he moves among the Zulu, the colored, the white – including a Jewish couple, who are classified white but not truly accepted, as well as the Boer. The politics of the time and infighting between different agencies – so familiar in American police procedurals where local police departments resent the intrusion of the FBI – layer this police procedural with intrigue and danger. Emmanuel solves the mystery, but the killer commits suicide and another man, beaten into a false confession so that the Security Branch can prosecute a communist for the murder, will be punished. Still, Emmanuel escapes with his life, two good friends, and has managed to keep a good woman from ruin, so it’s a happy ending.
Malla Nunn was born in Swaziland, southern Africa, and it’s clear she has a deep understanding of the country’s history. The book is engaging and Emmanuel is a good man and an interesting protagonist; Nunn is currently at work on the second book in this series.
It’s the fourth mystery of the six nominated for Best Novel by the Mystery Writers of America that I’ve read – the others include The Last Child by John Hart, Nemesis by Jo Nesbo and The Missing by Tim Gautreaux. A Beautiful Place to Die takes fourth place in my personal ranking of Edgar nominees. A good, solid book, an interesting premise, characters worth reading about…but I didn’t have quite the same level of engagement and the plot, although it had a lot of moving parts, didn’t have a lot of surprises.