Malla Nunn’s Detective Emmanuel Cooper series steeps the reader in the world of 1950s South Africa. The series have an unerring and chilling sense of place and time. The strict social strata enforced by law and social convention informs everything in this series.
Present Darkness has Cooper on loan to the Johannesburg police. He and his colleagues are called in to investigate the severe bashing of a school principal and his wife. It turns out that the principal had been hosting dinner parties for black students from a local school, much to the disgust of his neighbours. Two of these boys are identified by the principal’s daughter as the culprits and within no time one of them has been fitted up for the crime. That one is Aaron Shabalala, the youngest son of Cooper’s old friend and fellow “native” detective. So despite being officially sent back to Durban, Cooper stays around to try and solve the case.
Running parallel to this story is a character introduced in a prologue – a prostitute kidnapped from the street and taken to a farm where she is held captive by a pair of mystery men. Snippets of her point of view pepper the narrative until their connection to the main plot become clear.
DS Emmanuel Cooper is a complex and well-developed character. He carries around plenty of secrets, some of which are known by his direct superiors and used to keep him in line and some are too dangerous even for that. One of those is the mixed race wife and child, a relationship that is a criminal offence. The two live in Johannesburg and are the reason Cooper is there in the first place. While the earlier novels explored Cooper’s experiences as a soldier during World War II, this instalment focusses on his youth - growing up in the shanties of Sophiatown. Cooper is constantly juggling all of these parts of his life while trying to service his deep and abiding thirst for justice.
Cooper is assisted, once again, by his unlikely team of Detective Shabalala and Jewish doctor and holocaust survivor Dr Daniel Zweigman. These characters have always provided a perfect foil for Cooper just as the other shady characters such as the creepy Detective Mason, serve to bring out his basic humanity.
The Emmanuel Cooper series has been impressive from its outset. Nunn uses the conventions of the crime genre to searingly explore the milieu of 1950s South Africa, the echoes of which are still being felt today. Without lecturing, Nunn and her characters reveal the deep and entrenched prejudices that thrived under the apartheid regime. Putting this social commentary into the background of an engaging mystery, peopled with fascinating characters makes Present Darkness crime fiction at its best.