This impressive debut novel is set in South Africa in 1952, in the immediate aftermath of the election which resulted in the Boer government and specifically the Immorality Act, by which the “white”, coloured” and “black” races were not allowed to intermarry or have relationships. This cruel and totally wrong policy forms the backdrop to this story set in the small country town of Jacob’s Rest, where the chief of police, Captain Pretorius, has been shot to death just before the book opens.
The person who is sent to investigate the crime is Detective Emmanuel Cooper, who is an English veteran of the Second World War. He soon realises that he isn’t going to get any help from the local police officials, who consist of one absent officer and one very stupid, green recruit, Constable Hepple. He therefore turns to the Zulu Constable Shabalala, who is the only intelligent and experienced member of the local force. Shabalala, however, seems to know more than he is prepared to tell Cooper.
Pretorius, it soon emerges, was more than just the police chief – he, his wife and six sons ruled the town, owning most of the businesses and land. The sons are all arrogant and demand that Cooper finds out who killed their father. Cooper’s first problem is to determine a cause of death in the absence of the (white) police doctor who is travelling– he takes the body to the local convent where he is advised by the nuns to ask the “Old Jew” to undertake the task. The “Old Jew”, who owns a general store and runs a small clothes-making operation in the back room, turns out to be not only medically qualified but also to be an intelligent companion for Cooper as he desperately tries to make headway in investigating the crime despite being constantly hampered. (The fact that Cooper is not allowed to order a post mortem because Pretorius’s sons say their father “would not have liked it” is just the first of very many, increasingly challenging setbacks.)
The crime investigation is a tool used by the author to show at every opportunity the awfulness, meanness and worse of the prevailing administration and the attitudes it engendered in the people then living in South Africa. Not only do the Boers regard themselves as God’s chosen people living in a land that has been given to them by divine right, but very soon the infamous Security Branch step in to oversee the investigation. They want to resolve the case as quickly as possible, ideally by finding a likely “communist” and beating a confession out of him, so Cooper has to play a careful game of appearing to help while in fact continuing his search for the real perpetrator(s). Cooper’s methods are those of the traditional detective, but involve him experiencing the parallel life of the town along the “Kaffir paths” (mean little tracks that the black population had to use instead of the paved streets) and among the hovels and shacks that are the homes of the non-white population.
Malla Nunn is a great storyteller, and this novel gripped me to the end. It is somewhat of a melodrama, though, as the circumstances of Pertorius’s death become clearer in a series of dramatic sequences that occasionally stretch credibility. My main problem with the novel, however, is one of attitude — Cooper is a character in 1952 yet he has modern sensibilities. Rather than seeming like an enlightened liberal thinker of his time, he seems to me to me more like a 2010 man who has been parachuted in. Nevertheless, he’s an attractive character, and very deserving of the reader’s sympathies, both because of his dogged determination to get to the bottom of things despite considerable personal danger, but also because he’s vulnerable. Looking at the novel from the strict perspective of the mystery, the solution depends too much on people (even his friends) not telling Cooper things until a suitable point in the narrative — but this book is more than a crime novel, and it is one that will rest in the mind for a while.