LET THE DEAD LIE by Malla Nunn

Book Quote:

“That a life could be so easily taken without justice or recognition was a lesson he’d learned in childhood. Leading a company of soldiers through war confirmed that nothing was sacred or precious. It was strange how, after four years of training and fighting, the memory of his mother’s death still lurked in the shadows, ready to ambush the present.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (SEP 11, 2010)

Swaziland-born Nunn’s second 1950s South Africa novel opens with a prologue in 1945. Series protagonist Emmanuel Cooper, a major in the South African army at the time, comes across a murdered washerwoman in a Paris doorway and immediately abandons the night’s pleasures to stay with the body until the police arrive: “…it was an insult to abandon a body in a city where law and order had been restored.”

The main narrative opens in May 1953 in Durban and while Cooper remains true to his convictions, his life has gotten more difficult. After his unpopular success solving the murder of a police captain out in the veldt (A Beautiful Place to Die), he finds himself thrown off the police force and racially reclassified – a hazardous position in apartheid South Africa.

Doing some undercover work for his old boss, the Afrikaaner Major van Niekerk, spying on smugglers in the city dockyards, Cooper discovers the body of a murdered white boy, with two young Indians, one a would-be gangster, nearby. Fear replaces defiance when Cooper (falsely) identifies himself as a cop.

“With the National Party now in control, the police had become the most powerful gang in South Africa. The air went out of the Indian’s hard-man act.”

In 1950s South Africa, to be a non-white suspected in the murder of a white is to be already convicted. Cooper recognizes the child – a slum kid who ran errands along the port – and notices that the boy’s notebook, in which he recorded orders, is missing.

But the night is not over for Cooper who encounters the first in a series of reversals. Undaunted, he continues his surreptitious investigation into the killing until finally he is arrested for the boy’s murder and a couple more besides. Though the (planted) evidence is airtight, Major van Niekerk manages to spring Cooper from jail, giving him 48 hours to solve the crime or be re-arrested.

The characters come from various race classifications and nationalities and each has secrets, including Cooper, who’s haunted by the voice of an old soldier. “Like a vulture, the voice of his sergeant major from army basic training eight years previous appeared only when there was a fresh carcass to feed on. If the Scotsman was here in Durban, that could mean only one thing.”

And, of course, there is a woman, Lana, a beautiful confederate who seems to thrive on risk as much as Cooper does and who reveals a new aspect of herself – and another dangerous secret – with every appearance. As the relationship develops Cooper grows to understand more about himself and the women in his life:

“Lana disappeared around a corner, hips swinging, heels clicking. It was no wonder his marriage to Angela had failed. He’d asked too much of her. His buried childhood, the war, police work and an attraction to women with experience of life’s dark places…he couldn’t change who he was. There was no cure for the past. Whether or not he got out of this, he resolved to write Angela and wish her well.”

The one thing all the characters (including a couple from Nunn’s first novel who reappear in Cooper’s life) have in common is fear. Apartheid permeates every aspect of society; the police and the even more dreaded Security Services are the face and might of apartheid.

Nunn, a screenwriter, has a visual way with words and a knack for the noir turn-of-phrase. Introducing a secondary character who will play a fairly substantial role in the story: “The driver of the Chevrolet was a skinny white woman who’d given up being a blond. A trench of dark brown hair ran down the center of her head like a deserted landing strip.”

And a gangster’s Indian guard: “Closer up, Emmanuel saw that the guard was one of those men whose life was best summed up by a series of ex’s. Ex-boxer, ex-wrestler, ex-barroom bouncer.”

The plotting is complex and suspenseful and every scene conveys the sinister feel of South Africa’s apartheid culture. Cooper’s ambiguous racial classification has a suspense all its own.

Cooper’s decency is rock-solid and his character develops with experience. Though Nunn’s books stand alone, you may want to read the first to get the full enjoyment of Cooper’s growing complexity.

Nunn’s fans are also likely to enjoy Deon Meyer’s gritty novels of contemporary South Africa – his second Insp. Benny Griessel novel has just released – and the wonderful apartheid-era crime novels of the late James McClure, featuring white Lieutenant Kramer and black Sergeant Zondi. Most of McClure’s novels are out of print, but Soho Crime has set out to remedy that. McClure’s first two, The Steam Pig and The Caterpillar Cop have been reprinted in paperback this summer, with the other six to come over the next couple years. Highly recommended.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 16 readers
PUBLISHER: Washington Square Press; Original edition (April 20, 2010)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


September 11, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Noir, Reading Guide, Sleuths Series, South Africa, World Lit

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.