Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn
Pan Macmillan, 2010.
The year 1953 finds Emmanuel Cooper in Durban, no longer a policeman after the Morton’s fork he faced in A Beautiful Place to Die, working in the shipyards with other ex-army men of a variety of racial origins. Manual labour affords him some comfort as he recovers from the earlier events and from his previous wartime experiences, but he’s eager to accept an offer from his old boss and sort-of mentor, Major van Niekerk, to do some undercover work around the docks, identifying smugglers and other low-life. While out one night gathering intelligence, he stumbles across the body of a young boy, whom he quickly establishes has been murdered. After an altercation with three men, Cooper calls the police anonymously to report the death. Although he knows the risks to himself, he can’t ignore the boy’s plight, and so shadows the police as they investigate. Before he knows it, he’s a suspect in the crime. And this is only the start of a huge, and convoluted, series of troubles, scrapes and double-crosses in store for Cooper, involving an increasingly large cast of characters, some of whom appeared in the earlier novel.
For its first half, Let the Dead Lie is a compellingly exciting read, partly as a fast-moving investigation of a crime, and partly as a social commentary on the repressive and evil society of 1950s South Africa. Yet by the second half of this long novel, I felt that the pace was flagging a bit, and the confusion factor was getting unrealistically high as yet more people seem to know about private conversations and actions when they shouldn’t have done; or it is revealed that informants have followed Cooper’s every move – steps that to me often either seemed unnecessary or made me question why he was even being asked to undertake various tasks if the outcomes were already known. Throughout, though, the sense of social justice is a very strong theme, both the racism endemic in this cruel regime, in which even people who are married can’t admit their status, and in which poverty is rife, with many people living in awful conditions, relying on charitable handouts from the religiously inclined to survive.
Cooper is both a participant and an observer of this melee of events and of the lives of the many people he encounters during the novel – and those he meets seem to come from almost every possible race or background, so the reader gets a full picture of Durban life in the build-up to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps, for a novel, the picture is somewhat too full, blurring the effectiveness of the plot – but whatever one’s feelings about that, nobody could doubt that this is a novel with a big conscience, intent on revealing many shameful injustices that were accepted as the norm in their time but now, thankfully, exposed for what they really were.
My review of the first in this series, A Beautiful Place to Die.