Posted: July 26, 2011 in review, South Africa

South Africa 1952: Detective Emmanuel Cooper arrives in the tiny deep country town of Jacob’s Rest, near the Mozambique border, to investigate what district headquarters thought was a hoax but turns out to be the murder of  local police Captain Willem Pretorius. Cooper’s investigation is complicated by the National Party’s policy of segregating people into racial groups, the Immorality Act of 1950 that criminalizes sexual relations between the races, and the status of the Pretorius family. Captain Pretorius ruled the town, and his family of five boys, with a rod of iron. Mrs Pretorius is the daughter of one of the past leaders of the Afrikaner tribe. 

‘The great trek celebration,’ Hansie said.’ Captain and Mrs Pretorius took us Voortrekker Scouts on a trip to Pretoria for the ceremony. We got to throw logs into a huge fire.’

Emmanuel has psychological problems as a result of his war service, and secrets he must hide from the brutal Special Branch officers who come to Jacob’s Rest to pin the murder on a communist conspiracy. But he does get help to untangle the relationships between black, coloured, English, and Afrikaner from police constable Shabala, a half Zulu-half Shangaan, who grew up with Captain Pretorius, and the mysterious old Jew Zweigman, who runs a local store. Emmanuel faces the question of whether Pretorius is the paternalistic figure as some paint him or did he lead a double life that lead to his murder. There are some fine descriptions of the beautiful South African veldt, but the racial attitudes of the Boer Afrikaner are stated clearly in terms that were normal at that time and place, but would be very offensive today. The South Africa of 1952 comes across as a beautiful country deeply blemished by the obnoxious policy of apartheid.

Mrs Pretorius sighed. ‘There was always trouble with the coloureds; drinking and fighting, that sort of thing. They find it hard to control their emotions no matter how much white blood they have in them. Willem understood that, and tried not to be too tough with them.’

These are very different Afrikaners from those portrayed in Deon Meyer’s post apartheid novels, and sometimes the reader has to remind themselves this was 1952 and even in England these attitudes abounded at that time and for several decades after.

He didn’t put much store in Mrs Pretorius’s lecherous Shylock story: her world was populated with crafty Jews, drunken coloureds and primitive blacks. It was the standard National Party bullshit that poor Afrikaners swore by and educated Englishmen loved to mock while their own servants clipped the lawn.

There is a lot more of that sort of thing which gave the story an authentic atmosphere, and brought home to the reader the dreadful nature of the regime. I did enjoy the book although like a lot of current novels it was about 100 pages too long, and the ending wasn’t entirely convincing with a little too much melodrama. But I look forward to reading more about Emmanuel Cooper, and hopefully some of the other characters, in future books. 

One of the reasons I enjoyed this book was that I wondered how the Pretorius family with their anti-Semitic attitudes, and their ideas of Afrikaner superiority, would have reacted to certain real life events. The old Jew Zweigman tells Emmanuel: ‘I did not come here on the first Trekboer wagons,
and I do not understand how or even why one would play the game of rugby.’

A little ironic because at the time the dominant figure in South African rugby during both the New Zealand All Black tour of 1949, and the tour of Europe in 1951 was Aaron ‘Okey’ Geffin, a Jew, whose parents came from Lithuania. Geffin had been captured by the Germans at Tobruk, imprisoned as a POW in Italy, escaped, sent to Germany escaped and recaptured twice, he ended up in Stalag XX-A, where he met 1928 Springbok Bill Payn. They played rugby in the camp but had no boots so Geffin, a huge man, kicked the ball in bare feet. After the war he played for Transvaal, and in the first test of the All Blacks tour kicked 5 penalties, and scored 32 out of 47 points in the South Africans 4-0 series victory over the New Zealanders. On the 1951 tour of Europe he played against Scotland, kicking 7 conversions in the 44-0 victory, and also was vital in the wins over Wales and Ireland.     

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Norman – Thanks, as ever, for a fine review. Thanks also for that interesting historical information about rugby. It adds to the understanding of the context of this novel. Thanks also for the reminder that this is an historical novel. So the attitudes, terminology and so on used in it reflect the times in which the story takes place. That’s appropriate for such a novel, although what’s said and assumed would be offensive by today’s standards.

  2. Norman says:

    Thanks Margot.
    My school rugby coach John Gwilliam had captained Wales in 1951, when they lost narrowly to the South Africans, with Okey Geffin playing. Not surprisingly around half a century, 30kg and a busted knee have slowed me up a little. Actually a lot. ;O)

  3. Philip says:

    Excellent review, Norman, and very helpful to me. I recall that I enjoyed the book very much, though might have hoped for a pithier ending, but good stuff for a first outing. But at that point, life went slightly awry, Ms Nunn went off my radar, she never did get on one of my lists, and so I find that I missed her second, Let the Dead Lie, altogether. Her next, Blessed are the Dead, is due out in September.

    Love the rugby lore! I’d tell you what’s slowed me up a little, but it would be quicker if you just went through that copy of Gray’s I suspect you’ve got somewhere and made a complete list of body parts. (–:

  4. Norman says:

    Ah Philip, Gray’s Anatomy those were the days…. mandibular, trigeminal, hypoglossal..No I don’t think I could pass an anatomy exam today, but in 1964 I was a whizz.
    With Malla Nunn I might also skip number two and go on to Blessed are the Dead, but I have a mountain of 2012 International Dagger contenders to read first.

  5. Philip says:

    Norman, I have such a pile-up, while still progressing much more slowly than I’m used to, that I’ve been skipping books I would normally read as a matter of course once I notice an excuse for doing so, e.g., Three Seconds and Mina’s End of the Wasp Season. On the serious side, I’m also anxious to get my examination of Nazi-occupied Europe and the Holocaust over. All I originally intended to look at there was the role of the churches, but like the widening circles in a pond you’ve tossed a stone in, my partial study seems to have become all-encompassing, and it is a subject that gets very hard to live with Happily, I’m now at the purely theoretical level, the final circle, and thank God for that, productive though the process has been.

    All that is prefatory to saying that I’ve just looked at some reviews of Let the Dead Lie, and I thinking skipping that one may be unwise. Three of the five reviews I read recommend reading the first book before the second for the usual reason: backstory references, though these must be compounded by that fact that, it seems, great changes have taken place ‘offstage’ between the t wo novels. Given that, I think there may some real difficulties skipping from A beautiful Place to Blessed are the Dead. As this can be a considerable irritation (far more so with novels in translation published out of order), I’ve started thinking of it as Nesboitis. That’s not in Gray, although…”your thigh bone connected to your hip bone, your hip bone connected to your back bone, your back bone connected to your shoulder…”, and so it is with the modern ‘series’ crime novel. (I wonder how many medical students memorized that song before their anatomy exams? (-:) )

  6. A fine review. Like you, I enjoyed several aspects of this novel, but I can only agree when you suggest it is a bit too long – I felt it was a rather ´slow´ book. One thing I enjoyed thoroughly was the glimpses of Afrikaans because I recognize the words from Dutch.

  7. […] Malla Nunn‘s A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE was reviewed at Crime Scraps […]

  8. […] in a body and their various stages of development was almost too much, even for me. So to quote Norman, a blog friend, “…like a lot of current novels it was about 100 pages too […]

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