Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2014

A Beautiful Place to Die, (Detective Emmanuel Cooper #1) by Malla Nunn, narrated by Humphrey Bower

A Beautiful Place to Die (Bolinda Audio)A Beautiful Place to Die (book)I am indebted to Marilyn Brady for her recommendation to read Malla Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die.  Not being interested in crime fiction, I most certainly would have missed reading it if not for Marilyn’s enticing review, and that would have been a pity because A Beautiful Place to Die is much more than genre fiction.  It reminded me of the best of Graham Greene in the way that the novel explores how context and culture impact on crime and justice, and how survival in an intransigently corrupt society involves an existential struggle between integrity and resignation to the inevitable.

I bought a copy of the book not long after reading Marilyn’s review but it was still biding its time on the TBR when I saw it available as an audio book at the library.  Truth be told, although the title and author seemed vaguely familiar I forgot that I had the book at home, and didn’t find it until after I had finished the audio-book and I was *blush* shelving some other new acquisitions on the N shelf.  I am not at all sorry that I made this mistake, because I think this is a rare example of the audio-book being a better way to ‘read’ the book.

Humphrey Bower is a remarkable narrator: I have enjoyed many of his readings before, but this one is astonishingly good.  In the course of this novel Bower has to convey a multiplicity of accents because A Beautiful Place to Die is set in South Africa.  In Jacob’s Creek deep in Boer Country near the Mozambique border where the story takes place, there are Boer-Afrikaners, Zulu, ‘British’ South African, German-Jewish and Indian accents, and Bower convincingly recreates them all.  I couldn’t fault it.

Set in the early 1950s when apartheid was becoming rigidly institutionalised through legislation, Detective Inspector Emmanuel Cooper is sent by his ambitious boss Van Niekerk to investigate the murder of Captain Willem Pretorius, the well-respected Afrikaner  local police officer who rules Jacob’s Creek with more authority than his position entitles him to.  Cooper barely has time to interview Pretorius’s thuggish sons before the Security Branch arrive with their own agenda, which is to locate a likely ‘Communist’ suspect who can be beaten up in order to extract a confession.  (I invite anyone who thinks this unlikely to remember Steve Biko, and to note the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, see #123).

Cooper isn’t interested in a quick ‘Case Closed’ but he gets sidelined anyway.  The Security Branch ‘boys’ fob him off with an apparently unrelated investigation into a series of sexual assaults against ‘coloured’ girls.  One of the discomfiting aspects of this novel is the way that people are classified according to colour.  In my world, which is multicultural Melbourne, we simply don’t notice these differences, and we think that people who do notice these differences are a bit odd or perhaps limited in experience, or (less tolerantly) that they are racist.   Skin colour here in my city is simply part of the social background.  But Nunn’s novel forces the reader to confront the apartheid-era social and political reality of differences in skin colour with labels such as ‘coloured girls’, ‘Old Jew’, ‘whites’, ‘kaffirs’ and ‘blacks’.   More than that, she shows how these labels defined people’s lives.  A ‘coloured’ girl could not refuse an advance from a white man.  A Zulu such as Constable Shabalala, no matter how competent, could not aspire to promotion in the police force.  ‘Whites’ could expect preferential treatment in all things, and ‘Black’ victims of crime could not expect justice or even much in the way of an investigation.

The book is intricately plotted, with enough red herrings to make it interesting, but the real interest lies in Cooper’s dilemma.  Hamstrung on all sides by the racial code and its political manifestations, he is interested only in a truth that involves illicit desire infringing the new Immorality Act and other laws besides.    Way out in the middle of nowhere and working alone, he is vulnerable to all kinds of intimidation including physical violence, and he has to decide – at the cost of his own safety – where he belongs in the struggle.

It’s a remarkable book, one which has made me want to explore more of this most interesting author’s work.

Author: Malla Nunn
Title: A Beautiful Place to Die
Narrated by Humphrey Bower
Publisher: Bolinda Audio Books, 2009
ISBN: 9781742333564
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Fishpond: A Beautiful Place to Die (audiobook) or A Beautiful Place to Die (print)


  1. It’s on my wish list at Amazon – no Humphrey Bower to read (yes, I have heard him. Nunn has nice reviews and ratings on almost all her books. Also, I’m interested in South Africa –


  2. Oops – and I like crime fiction!


    • Do people buy you books that are on your wish-list sometimes?


      • LOL! It’s never happened yet. No one buys me books anymore – a gift card, maybe. And oh – I should have said “Audible” not Amazon – I like listening to crime books. :-)


        • No *glum smile*, nobody ever took any notice of my WishList either.
          I find that the books I listen to are usually quite different to what I read. More plot driven.


  3. Thanks for mentioning me. Her others are every bit as good, although some of her female characters are weak.

    I can’t say that race is as irrelevant here in the USA as you see it in Melbourne.


    • Ah well, Marilyn, your USA history is entirely different. But you know, it was your President Obama who complimented Australia on being a successful multicultural society and what’s more, he credited teachers for building it!
      When you say her female characters are weak, and I agree that’s so in this one, is that due in part to the era? I mean, SA in the early 1950s would have been every bit as chauvinistic and paternalistic as any other place, so the women would have been marginalised.


      • Obama may be right about Australia and teachers’ role in establishing a multicultural atmosphere. I certainly see you doing your part in that. I am just depressed at how my own country has gone backward into the acceptance of racial hatred. African Americans have been able to move into more positions of power over the past 50 years but the result has been enormous backlash.

        I wasn’t being critical of SA women being marginalized in the 1950s, but of Nunn’s failure to develop them in the novel, as she does the men.
        There are some exceptions, but many, including Cooper’s lover, seem to be foils for her truly remarkable male characters. But grumbling aside, I really do enjoy her books.


        • Yes, I see what you mean. But given her purpose in exposing the way power was exploited at that time and place, of necessity the male characters had to dominate. I mean, in the 1950s there were no female policewomen (unless maybe some in welfare roles); and they were not in the security forces.
          I would love it if she wrote about the women of the Black Sash, or some of the female heroes of the anti-apartheid movement. Perhaps she has? I shall have to check out more of her work.


  4. There are crime books and crime books. People sometimes see me reading a book, ask me what it’s about and then offer to lend me a crime title they loved, but most of the time it’s something outside of my range of interest: either too gory, or too cozy, or about the cat-and-mouse exploits of some deranged serial killer who thrills at teasing the police.

    Anyway… I just started Thomas Cook’s A Dancer in the Dust. Early days yet, but it’s set in Africa and part of it concerns life under one of those despotic rulers. It occurred to me that you might like it, but I’ll wait until I finish it recommending it. Cook’s crime books are cerebral and always concern the bigger moral picture.


    • Oh yes, Thomas Cook is great – and Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) is surprisingly good (I was surprised anyway). Her latest, The Silkworm, is somewhat literary – not in styling (although it’s good) so much as in allusions, references, setting, etc.


      • Yes, indeed there is crime, and crime. I loved An Instance of the Fingerpost; and The Name of the Rose – there’s a name for that kind of crime novel, is it ‘arcane crime’ or something like that?
        But those serial killer books are just silly, and I find those sad lonely detective stereotype novels tedious beyond belief.
        Was there another one set in Africa – maybe with Idi Amin? I read that and was quite impressed. (I think they made it into a bad B-grade movie).


        • Well – The Ladies #1 Detective Agency books are set in Botswana but those aren’t really “crime” novels imo – and I’m a huge fan. Michael Stanley writes detective novels (Det. Kobo, I think) set in southern Africa. I read A Carrion Death – Kobo is one of those “lonely detective” types – lol


          • My mother likes those, and I did enjoy the TV series. As you say, the crime is a sideline in those books


  5. I’m glad you read and enjoyed this book Lisa. I heard Malla Nunn, P M Newton and Adrian McKinty at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year and was so inspired that I read A Beautiful Place to Die too. I reviewed it on Good Reads. It is a great read and I’m looking forward to the next in the series. I also want to read Adrian McKinty, especially after his 2014 Ned Kelly Award win.

    Your comment on race in Melbourne is interesting and it is my experience too, which made me quite shocked when I moved from there and found myself in an area of white Sydney where too often I was confronted by people confiding their racist views with me because they expected me to agree with them. Yet I should have remembered my shock working in Melbourne in the 1980s when I heard the ‘jokes’ made by allegedly well-educated people in the office when I told them of our plans to holiday in the Northern Territory.

    Australia is a successful multicultural country in patches, and even Melbourne has its patches as some incidents with the Sudanese community have indicated. There is still much work to be done and we all need to show leadership in this area. There are not enough people prepared to do that at the moment. Like Marilyn Brady I’m depressed at how too many Australians have gravitated back to the attitudes which from my reading seem to belong in the 1950s, not in the twenty-first century.


    • Hello Yvonne, lovely to hear from you – I assume you are all settled into your new home by now?
      You know, I thought you’d reviewed it, and I checked your blog and found it mentioned in the SWF report post but not the review. I should have checked GR too, thanks for placing the link:)
      I’m going to take the book to Qld on my next trip because I think my father will enjoy it, it’s a book that will appeal to many tastes, I think.

      *rueful smile* I must admit that I deliberately mentioned Melbourne and not Sydney because I know there have been tensions there, and I hope I’m not being naïve when I say that I think there have only been isolated incidents here. Perhaps because I work with children who simply don’t notice skin colour, I am optimistic:)
      And I note that you use the word ‘confide’ and I also find some hope in that, in the sense that if people feel the need to confide their racist views rather than assert them out loud in any company, that means that overt racism has not been normalised. In Sydney where the shock jock culture is so much worse than here, I take some comfort in that.


  6. Thanks for this review Lisa, I have just finished the audio book and liked it as much as you did. I thought the characterisation was strong and the images of country perfectly described. The narration was also excellent, as you have pointed out. I will move onto the next book soonish.


    • I haven’t been able to find an audio book of the next one: I did so enjoy listening to it as I drove to work.
      I’m currently listening to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, narrated by Derek Jacobi. What a contrast! I can’t understand why people think it’s any good and am about to give up on it!


  7. Great review, you make me feel like reading it again. I rarely read detective fiction but read this in my book club soon after it first came out. As the parent of a mixed race child I found the theme of race particularly interesting, and it persists through the rest of the series, although I’m not up to #4 yet.

    I was also lucky to hear Malla Nunn at the Sydney Writers festival – she’s such an engaging speaker.


    • Maamej, your comment has reminded me how much I wanted to read the next one! And guess what, I’ve just downloaded it as an E-audio book from my library, I’m listening to part one right now!


      • Lol, excellent :)


  8. […] A Beautiful Place to Die, see my review […]


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