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Let the Dead Lie, by Malla Nunn.

March 15, 2013

Let the Dead Lie: A Novel by Malla Nunn. New York: Washington Square Press, 2010.


Another of Nunn’s fine mystery novels set in South Africa in the 1950s and revealing the confusion and complexities of apartheid.

Malla Nunn has written another excellent detective novel with lots of suspense and misdirection, a sequel to her A Beautiful Place to Die. [See my review.]  Those who have read the first book will see the connections in this story.  New readers will find everything they need to know spelled out in this book, however, and no spoilers to prevent them from going back enjoying the first.  The lead character, Emmanuel Cooper, lost his position as a Detective in the initial book.  More importantly, when the lack of clarity about the race of his father was revealed, he lost his status as a white man.  Yet when he sees the recently murdered body of a young boy, his detective instincts kick in.  As he sets out to identify the murderer, he encounters a host of unique characters; English, German, Russian, and Zulu, each with his or her own secrets, and each described with sensitivity.  The plot thickens when Cooper himself is charged with the boy’s murder and the related murders of two additional victims.  This is mystery writing at its best, with the particular place and people as important as the crime committed.

The depiction of South Africa under apartheid by Nunn sets her mystery apart from others. Most of us think of apartheid as the stark division of white and black people, as it was envisioned by its designers.  The reality, as Nunn displays, was messier.  She grew up in Swaziland, on the borders of South Africa and sharing its racial restrictions.  Her parents had lived in Durban, where this book takes place, and they told her stories about living under apartheid; stories she incorporates in her books.  The line between black and white was never clear.  In between Europeans and Africans were “non-Europeans,” people from India and those of mixed lineage who might pass.   A person’s racial identity could be changed, and with a change came a different set of rules to be observed.

People lied and cheated to get the word European on this square of green paper. Others turned their backs to South Africa because of it. How could such a small thing—plastic-covered piece of paper—control a person’s whole life.

The details of the restrictions could be menacing.  Nunn gives us casual examples.  All the front seats on the tram were reserved for Europeans. The only blacks to be seen on a “white’s only” beach were there because they served the whites.  Cooper and the white woman he was interviewing could only walk, not sit down in a restricted area, because one was classified white and one “non-white”.  A sexual encounter between a black and a white was a major crime.

In addition to its mystery plot and its setting, Let the Dead Lie allows Nunn to develop her main character.  We see, more clearly than in the previous book, how Emmanuel Cooper was shaped by the inter-racial slum near Johannesburg where he grew up, and why he feels so strongly about detection as a means by which the victim can speak.  For him,

Investigating a murder was more than an intellectual challenge, it was a desire to restore order and help the dead on their way.

I heartily recommend Let the Dead Lie to everyone who enjoys a well-written, suspenseful novel, even those who seldom read mysteries.  I also recommend it to those who care about what it means to live under a cruel regime that seeks to separate and dehumanize people.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2013 3:43 am

    Malla Nunn’s novels have been in my TBR for a while now. I am just so sceptical about it. However, from your review, you seem to have enjoyed it and recommending it. Nice, I am looking forward to reading it.

    By the way, welcome back.

    • March 16, 2013 10:07 am

      A plot summary makes the book sound contrived, but Nunn is such a good writer that I think she succeeds. I hope you enjoy reading it as I did.

  2. March 19, 2013 11:45 am

    sounds so good! going on my to-read list


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