Like the ancient Greeks with drama, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler said all there was to say about the hard-boiled crime novel. For the past half century or so, the challenge for writers of quick-read pulp has been figuring out how to apply the masters’ brand of bruised-knuckle sleuthing and snappy tough-guy patter to a fresh setting. Dennis Lehane has done pretty well with the blue-collar Irish milieu of South Boston, and Boris Akunin has cracked crackling cases all over czarist Russia. Now, with Malla Nunn’s debut, A Beautiful Place to Die, you can add apartheid-era South Africa to your global mystery passport.
Nunn’s Det. Emmanuel Cooper is an English WWII veteran who emigrated to Johannesburg in the early ’50s, a toxic time when the country’s racial divisions couldn’t have been more black-and-white. He’s a stranger in a strange land, not only because he doesn’t use skin color to determine guilt or innocence but also because he barely understands just how deep these fault lines go. But Cooper gets a crash course when the well-liked white police chief of the incestuous rural town of Jacob’s Rest is found floating in a river with a bullet in his head. As Cooper moves from suspect to suspect, unearthing dirty secrets the townspeople would prefer be left buried, he butts up against racist Afrikaners, Zulu customs, and a pornography ring. And then there are the voices in his head that egg on his sickest sexual urges and most violent tire-iron-wielding impulses. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency this ain’t.
Nunn, a filmmaker who grew up in Swaziland, knows Cooper’s world. And this first installment in a proposed series has all the right smells and dialects. But as a character, Cooper’s no Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He feels sketchy, half-drawn — not quite alive yet. Next time out, we’ll need less poetry about the beauty of the veldt, and more clues about what makes this new sleuth tick. B