Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 1, 2021

Present Darkness, (2014, Detective Emmanuel Cooper #4), by Malla Nunn

It’s Southern Cross Crime Month at Reading Matters, and my choice of Present Darkness by Swazi-born, Sydney-based author, screenwriter and film-maker Malla Nunn is an apt choice, if I do say so myself, because it’s set in South Africa where (except in Spring) they too can see the Southern Cross in the night sky!

I don’t often read crime but I like Malla Nunn’s Detective Emmanuel Cooper series because it’s also an historical novel, offering a deft and devastating portrayal of apartheid in South Africa in the 1950s.  Present Darkness, No #4 and last in the series is set in 1953, just as rigid geographical controls were being legislated to ensure residential separation based on skin colour.

The novel begins in Johannesburg, 1953, with the abduction of a young prostitute and then the action shifts to Detective Emmanuel Cooper’s arrival at a major crime scene.  There has been a break-in at a property where the husband and wife have been very badly beaten.  The husband dies that night, but the murder investigation takes on personal significance for Cooper when the son of his best friend and colleague Shabalala is one of two Zulu boys accused of the crime.  And as if institutionalised racism and the peculiarities of the crime were not enough to deal with, Cooper is very soon taken off the case by a senior officer called Mason, and not because of his personal connection to the accused’s family. Cooper keeps his associations with people of colour very private, including his relationship with Davida and their daughter.

It’s a familiar trope in crime fiction, the ostracised, alienated detective working outside the system and deprived of any available resource.  Cooper has to rely on his own powers of observation, deduction, networking, knowledge of human nature and his intuition. As in previous novels in this series he is also aided and abetted by the inner voice of the sergeant with whom he served during WW2, and by Shabalala and Zweigman, a doctor who survived the Nazi death camps but lost his entire family.  These three survive various encounters with the malevolent Mason and his thugs while slowly the pieces come together, as they do in crime fiction.

For me, it’s the book’s dual identity as a crime-and-historical novel which makes it interesting to read.  Subtle attention to detail and light sarcasm brings the evils of apartheid to grotesque life.  Without being heavy-handed about it, Nunn makes clear the injustices large and small.  In a scene where Cooper has located a covert marijuana farm on the dead man’s property, he tells the ‘garden boy’ (who is a grown man) to leave:

‘I am gone, baas.  No coming back.’ Sipho started to walk away, resigned to the fact that the policemen would steal every plant and strip each sticky resin to fill their own pipes.  No matter.  He’d start again in the New Year with seeds smuggled back from where the whites had moved his people so they could make citrus farms on tribal land. (p.166)

Assumptions about the inherent superiority of the white man are demolished with light humour.  (Please note, this passage contains racist language).

‘You left the girl alone and in danger,’ Shabalala said to Andy.  ‘You who are the elder.  The man.’

Red crept into Andy’s cheeks: that a kaffir should talk to him with such contempt felt worse than an openhanded slap or a bruised windpipe.  He threw his head back and tried to pin Shabalala with a cold stare.

‘Watch your mouth,’ he croaked. ‘A kaffir in a suit is still a kaffir’.

‘I am half Zulu and half Shangaan,’ Shabalala answered with good humour.  ‘And you are not even worthy to be called a man.’

‘Are you going to let him speak to me like that?’ Andy played the white-man-against-the-natives card and got a shrug in reply.

‘I’d let him break your arm if he wanted to,’ Emmanuel said… (p.219)

Present Darkness portrays this society with all the complexity it deserves.  There are good and bad on both sides of the colour bar, but it’s when these worlds collide that the cruelty of apartheid is laid bare.  Cooper can only enjoy his idyll with Davida and his precious daughter if they live in the compound of a wealthy white man who also has a dark-skinned lover.  Despite the luxury, she feels caged, but there are few places that the couple can venture out together, and their daughter’s future is uncertain.  It is these elements that make the book notable within its genre.

I featured Malla Nunn in Meet an Aussie Author a while ago, now, and she has since published some notable YA novels.  You can find out more about her at her website.

Author: Malla Nunn
Title: Present Darkness, (Detective Emmanuel Cooper #4)
Publisher: Emily Bestler Books, (Simon and Schuster), 2014
Cover design by Anna Dorfman
ISBN: 9781451616965, pbk., 337 pages
Source: personal copy, purchased from Diversity Books $4.00

Available from Fishpond: Present Darkness



  1. Thanks for reviewing this, Lisa, it reminded me of why I enjoyed the first book in the series – it’s that mix of history and crime, along with the South African setting, that gives it a real ring of authenticity. I really ought to read the others in this series…


  2. Good choice. I’ve read very little from South Africa – Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and some early Coetzee and one everyone read at school (by a woman .. it’s not coming to me). It’s interesting that Nunn mixes crime fiction and Historical fiction in this way but it sounds as though she has the background to pull it off.
    You’re better organised than I, but I will start reading tonight, a novel I haven’t mentioned to Kim but which jumped out at me when I happened to glance in its direction just a short while ago.


    • Nadine Gordimer, or maybe Doris Lessing?
      There’s some fine books coming out of SA now… Zakes Mda is particularly good.


      • Nadime Gordimer thank you. I thought of Lessing and I’m a big fan, but I think the African book of hers I read was set in Rhodesia.


        • Yes, I think that’s right. I read Lessing ages ago when she was just starting to become known. I’ve always meant to re-read them…


  3. Wonderful review, Lisa! Malla Nunn is a new-to-me writer. So nice to know that this book is part of a series. It is also wonderful that this book is also historical. Will add this to my list. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊


    • Thanks, Vishy. I think you should be able to get a copy fairly easily because it is published through an American publisher.


      • Thank you, Lisa. Will try to get it.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This series sounds fascinating – great review!


  5. I’ve heard of Malla Nunn, probably mostly through the AWW Challenge, so I’m glad to read your review. I had no idea she set books in South Africa. That and that they are historical would interest me too.


    • You might have heard of her through me too because I’ve reviewed three of the books in this series and featured her in Meet an Aussie Author too. I really like her blend of historical fiction with the crime genre!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] ‘Present Darkness’ by Malla Nunn reviewed by Lisa @ ANZLitlovers Police procedural set in Apartheid South Africa, part of the Detective Emmanuel Cooper series […]


  7. […] Present Darkness, (Detective Emmanuel Cooper #4), by Malla Nunn […]


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