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Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

LET THE DEAD LIE by Malla Nunn: Book Review

South Africa in the 1950s. Not a good place for blacks, Indians, Chinese, or anyone other than white.  But a fascinating, although very scary, place to visit via a novel.

Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn is the second novel in her series featuring Emmanuel Cooper, a South African of mixed blood who can and has passed for white. For writing a sympathy note to a black woman on the death of her son who was in police custody, Cooper had to leave the Johannesburg police force and move to Durban, where he has a low-level job in a shipyard.  Cooper’s former supervisor, Major van Niekerk, was also sent to Durban as punishment, but he has remained loyal to Cooper and has enlisted his help in ferreting out some corrupt members of the Durban police force, although Cooper’s operation must necessarily be covert.

Cooper is following these orders, trying to forget how much he misses being a police detective, when he stumbles across the body of a young boy on the docks.  The boy was a runner for some underworld thugs but was harmless himself, simply a poor white kid trying to support his family.  When two Indian teenage brothers are spotted at the scene of the murder, they fit perfectly into the racial intolerance of the time; before long there’s a city-wide police search for them.

Cooper gets caught  in the middle of this, knowing that the Indian boys are innocent. Then Cooper’s landlady and her housemaid are murdered, and an incriminating piece of evidence is found in Cooper’s apartment.  Van Niekerk makes a deal with him–find the actual murderer and Cooper can rejoin the police and obtain that all important white identity card.  It seems that in South Africa in the 1950s if you were light enough to “pass” and had the right connections, you could get a white ID.  That piece of paper allowed you to go to certain parks, the beaches, hospitals, and schools–it controlled your life.  Without it, you were a second-class citizen under the law.

There are some very interesting characters in Let The Dead Lie. In addition to Cooper and van Niekerk, there’s the bar girl, mistress of van Niekerk; a seriously ill former Russian spy and his very pregnant wife; an Indian gangster; and a Jewish doctor and a black police constable who were punished in the first novel for helping Cooper find out the truth about a murder.

In addition to the racial laws passed in 1948 that characterized the population as “white,” “colored,” “mixed-race,” and “Chinese,” there is also the ethnic division between the British and the Dutch or Afrikaans.  The British and the Afrikaans don’t trust or respect each other, and each group walks a dangerous tightrope to try to be in first place.

Let The Dead Lie lets us into a world that, thankfully, is in the past.  The sense of history in this mystery is overwhelming. The reader learns how precarious life was there, especially for non-whites but even for the white population.  Corruption and favoritism ruled, and once you were caught in a trap there was not an easy way out.  Being innocent wasn’t enough.

In addition to being a novelist, Malla Nunn is an award-winning filmmaker. You can read more about Malla Nunn and see a brief video of her at her publishers’ web page.