After two years' absence, Detective Harry Mason has rejoined the South African Police Service, but is now moved to the Serious and Violent Crimes unit.
DEAD-END ROAD is third novel Detective Harry Mason novel from South African author Richard Kunzmann - the earlier books are BLOODY HARVESTS and SALAMANDER COTTON. It was the first of this series that I've read, and I'm not sure that was necessarily a wise move.
It's been a couple of years since Harry's last outing and since then he has joined the elite Serious and Violent Crimes unit. They have been assigned to the investigation of the slaying of a minor politician and his family in a township west of Johannesburg. Unsolvable, until a tip sends the unit in pursuit of a vigilante group known as the Guardians headed by two notoriously violent brothers. Things get personally bad for Harry when he is shot during a dawn raid on a remote village in pursuit of the gang.
Part of the reason I picked up this book out of order was for a group read on a discussion list, and one of the participants in that discussion had read the earlier books - which was just as well, as this book didn't seem to work as a stand-alone. Harry, I'm told is a great central character, but as he was shot very early on in this book and didn't really make much of a return appearance he was very hard to assess. Perhaps it was this act that made the book seem to lack purpose or a single focus, but for much of the action I had absolutely and utterly no idea what was going on, who was who and what the whole point was. I actually had to read the blurb to remind myself what this investigation was supposedly all about as cameo appearances from a range of characters who appeared to have no context whatsoever kept coming and going and my grip on the whole thing got fuzzier and fuzzier.
Luckily I've now got the 2 earlier books in the series so I'll pick them up when I get a chance and see if the problem was just this book (which I suspect may have been the case). And the problem with this book could very well have been me - perhaps I wasn't working hard enough, having said that, I'm not sure I want to raise a sweat just to read a book.
A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE, Malla Nunn
In 1950s South Africa, the colour of a killer's skin matters more than justice.
When Captain Willem Pretorius, an Afrikaner police officer, is brutally murdered in the tiny backwater of Jacob's Rest, Detective Emmanuel Cooper is sent to investigate.
One thing that will strike readers of A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE firmly between the eyes is how an apartheid society is so incredibly foreign from the ways in which others of us live. That's not to say that there is an overtly "political" agenda in this book, rather the book does not take a step backwards in depicting South Africa under Racial Segregation laws. It also starkly draws a picture of the various societies within that - the 'English' South African's, the Afrikaner South African's and the native South African's. It is not a particularly pretty picture, and it's delivered vividly.
Jacob's Rest is a very small town in the South African veldt. The prejudice, petty jealousy, intrigues, secrets and isolation of small town living are overlaid by the racial situation - the kaffir path that runs behind the town's houses is the only way around for the towns coloured population, and it's that situation that allows it to be used for more sinister purposes. Captain Pretorius and his family of big, strong sons, have stood sway over Jacob's Rest with a born to rule superiority that can only come from an unwavering belief that their way is the only way. So when the Captain is found in a river with a bullet in his head, his sons are convinced that the coloured community holds the key. Detective Cooper gets the case mostly by accident and he has been placed in a dangerous and difficult position, particularly when the very heavy handed (and overtly political) Security Branch muscle in. Cooper finds himself relegated to investigating previous claims of a peeping tom using the kaffir path, whilst he tries to keep out of the way of the thuggish Security Branch (and the sons of the dead man).
Nearly all of the observations and viewpoints in this book come from the young Detective Emmanuel Cooper. He is a man who is not comfortable with Racial Segregation and he's not at all comfortable with the way that life is divided up in Jacob's Rest. His natural inclination is towards time spent with Constable Shabalala - the part-Zulu man who was an offsider of the dead Captain Pretorius, and Zweigman, the German Jewish shopkeeper - who is really a doctor but part of the secondary class of society. It is these three who are the key to the unwinding of a long tale of secrets and misuse of influence, and to hefty doses of corruption and cover-up.
More than a message book, A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE is really an extremely good thriller, with lots of twists and turns in the story, which happens to be set in a society totally foreign to this reader at least. Having said that, there are elements which are familiar - the locked room (closed in village); elements of police procedure, albeit somewhat strained by the remoteness of the location and so on. The underlying message of the book is heavy handed, but it is done in an illustrative way - rather than a smack over the head job. The way that the investigation has to proceed within the society structure is profoundly shocking. The revelations of the way that the Security Branch operates; the secrets in families throughout the town - which aren't really all that shocking or dreadful, but nonetheless need to be secrets is profoundly discomforting; and the way that people's lives were so fundamentally affected by something as minor as the colour of their skin is really very sobering indeed.
The ending is undoubtedly a tiny bit sentimental, but after the previous hammering that the characters have endured, it's forgivable. In fact that's probably the only small criticism I could come up with, the book could easily have finished with no need for the gentle let down, I'd have fretted over Constable Cooper just as happily. I do hope, however, that the ending is hinting at another book beginning though.