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.