[30 March 2009]
A botched phone call reporting the murder of a white police chief in the rural town of Jacob’s Rest brings naive English detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper far from his hometown of Johannesburg and into a territory that is unruly and unfamiliar. The highly unfortunate error casts Cooper into Jacob’s Rest battling racism, pornography, and South Africa’s Security Branch. And it sends the reader into the poorly constructed, melodramatically conveyed and scattered story that is A Beautiful Place to Die.
Police Chief Willem Pretorious has been found dead by the river, and everyone in the town is desperate to ensure that he remain a hero in death. But in a small town with a decided dearth of viable suspects, it is inevitable that some sort of scandal is afoot. This scandal is tied up in racism, pride, and sexual deviance, all of which run rampant throughout the town and narrative subtext.
Nunn’s attempt to accurately create a picture of apartheid era drama is perhaps what might have been this book’s greatest feature. Unfortunately, she attempts too much at once. She herself is familiar with the social structure in South Africa, and intrinsic features of the country surely shaped the narrative in her head. Unfortunately, she cannot decide how much background to give, and the resulting narrative vacillates between over explanation and gaping holes. There are glimpses throughout the book where it could be historical fiction and Nunn has made a blood choice by setting the book in 1952 South Africa. But facts and contexts are easily swapped for cheap literary shots of a crime novel and the back and forth leaves us wishing for more consistency.
Her leading man, Emmanuel Cooper, shares the same flaws as the book as a whole. Nunn plans on developing an entire mystery series based on Cooper, of which A Beautiful Place to Die will be the first. She drops numerous hints of Cooper’s troubled past and unresolved present; he has come to South Africa after fighting in World War II and as an Englishman is ideologically lonely and suspicious. He also bears with him a preoccupation with some personal shame apart from political cynicism, but Nunn’s journeys in the detective’s mind frequently fail to be clear, preventing the setup of the cliffhanger.
Jacob’s Rest is a quiet town, but her writing is so slow that it takes her 200 pages to create any kind of compelling drama. Cooper’s investigation is laborious due to various enemies he encounters from people of all races and classes in the town. Unfortunately, it is so fruitless than Nunn fails to hit us with a single page-turning detail until close to the end. A crime novel where the reader is bewildered rather than scheming and conjecturing makes for a lethargic trek.
The inconsistencies may be due to Nunn’s background. She is a screenplay writer making her first transition to book writing and ultimately, and this accounts for the slowness of her narrative. She describes scenes well, but at great length in a way that it is more factual than gripping. She frequently is using too much of her own voice, including ironic asides, and not enough of the characters. Most of her passages on Cooper’s inner world and mind read more like character notes rather than anything meant for an audience. Much of her text reads like scene-setting passages meant for set designers, not audiences.
Also, Nunn’s efforts to capture a male perspective on sexuality are awkward and overdone. Every female in the book is a sex object, which may be an accurate interpretation. But she tries so hard to cultivate a voice of male sexual preoccupation that her descriptions sound either oddly misogynistic or pre-pubescent. She often sounds like a young boy who has heard about sex but lacks the experience, or even the hormones, to appropriately characterize it. This causes even more a problem for her since one of the main ways she tries to flesh out Cooper’s character is his complex relationship with his own libido.
Finally, even by mystery novel standards, Nunn’s one-line zingers are weak. How can a reader care about plot when she is busy wondering why Nunn refers to a significant character with a perfectly good name as “the shy brown mouse” three times on one page? Other lines are simply confusing. “If his brothers were rock, Louis was paper.” Is Nunn referring to the game rock paper scissors? Is she talking about size or consistency? Or just trying to fill space on a space to meet a word count?
Nunn occasionally interjects a drop of humor that seems to come more from her own head than from Cooper’s. These are the only moments of real compelling, clarity in the book. But they are far too few to redeem this mostly lackluster novel.