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3.9 out of 5 stars43
3.9 out of 5 stars
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This novel could be classed as an 'historical detective story' but there is nothing chintzy or twee about it. Malla Nunn mixes the chaotic social situation of post-war South Africa with an intriguing murder investigation.
The story reveals how apartheid affected different classes/colours of people in the decade after WW2, and gave me a whole new insight into the polyglot nature of SA society. But it's not just a history lesson -- the plot, which revolves around the murder of an Afrikaans Police Captain, is intriguing in its own right. The core characters of the tale are interesting too: the protagonist is an isolated detective from Jo-burg, shell-shocked from WW2 and out on a limb against the interests of the security service. The hero has to rely on various locals including a Jewish emigre who has his own share of secrets, and the native population including the dead Captain's 'spiritual brother'. Almost everyone has something to hide -- and almost all of the secrets revolve around the tightening race laws of the time.
The writing is extremely accessible and although many of the plot devices are conventional I didn't find that 'A Beautiful Place To Die' was in any way predictable. I hope Malla Nunn follows it up with more stories set in the same time and place so we can see how some of the characters develop... and her descriptions of the veldt and the township are stunning.
A more than competant debut.
8/10
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This novel could be classed as an 'historical detective story' but there is nothing chintzy or twee about it. Malla Nunn mixes the chaotic social situation of post-war South Africa with an intriguing murder investigation.
The story reveals how apartheid affected different classes/colours of people in the decade after WW2, and gave me a whole new insight into the polyglot nature of SA society. But it's not just a history lesson -- the plot, which revolves around the murder of an Afrikaans Police Captain, is intriguing in its own right. The core characters of the tale are interesting too: the protagonist is an isolated detective from Jo-burg, shell-shocked from WW2 and out on a limb against the interests of the security service. The hero has to rely on various locals including a Jewish emigre who has his own share of secrets, and the native population including the dead Captain's 'spiritual brother'. Almost everyone has something to hide -- and almost all of the secrets revolve around the tightening race laws of the time.
The writing is extremely accessible and although many of the plot devices are conventional I didn't find that 'A Beautiful Place To Die' was in any way predictable. I hope Malla Nunn follows it up with more stories set in the same time and place so we can see how some of the characters develop... and her descriptions of the veldt and the township are stunning.
A more than competant debut.
8/10
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on 29 April 2011
FIRST SENTENCE (Chapter 1): Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper switched off the engine and looked out through the dirty windscreen.

MEMORABLE MOMENT (Page 151): Every colour from fresh milk to burnt sugar was on show. There was enough direct evidence in the churchyard to refute that blood mixing was unnatural. Plenty of people managed to do it just fine.

KEEP IT OR NOT?: A reading group book, I shall return this for other readers to read and discuss.

A debut novel that I both enjoyed reading and learnt a lot from - I will certainly be looking out for further books by this author. A real page-turner - the crime/thriller aspect to the story was interesting enough but, for me, it was the insight into 1950s South Africa that was so fascinating.Well researched, A Beautiful Place To Die tells the story of a country segregated not only into 'whites' and 'blacks' but also into 'coloureds' as well - throw a Jewish character into the racial stew and you have a compelling if somewhat disturbing look at a country where, and I quote .....

"The new segregation laws divided people into race groups, told them where they could live and told them where they could work. The Immorality Act went so far as to tell people who they could sleep with and love."

Not only a good plot, there is a real mix of wonderfully observed characters who, though not always pleasant, are always human and make for great reading. My only 'complaint'? I would love to know more about the previous lives of 'English' South African Detective Emmanuel Cooper and Jewish doctor (?) Daniel Zweigman and hope the author explores at least Cooper in greater depth in her second book Let the Dead Lie
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 30 December 2010
Africa remains a relatively unexplored setting for crime novels, so I was pleased to come across this book set in 1950s South Africa. It opens with Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper arriving in the tiny eastern border town of Jacob's Rest to investigate a report of a drowned police officer. It turns out the man found floating in a pool of water was the town's police captain/unofficial mayor, and was shot through the head. Thus begins Cooper's trip down the dark mean dirt paths that criss-cross the velt behind the town's Afrikaner, Zulu, and Colored houses, shops, and farms. As in any good small-town crime story, nearly everyone has secrets to hide from Cooper -- even the stoic Zulu police constable and mysterious Jewish shopkeeper who become his sidekicks. However, what might have been a standard procedural whodunit in an exotic setting is vastly complicated by the arrival on the scene of two national Security Force goons who take over the investigation. They are hunting for a communist angle to the murder, even if they have to beat it out of an innocent scapegoat, or knock a non-Afrikaner policeman like Cooper around.

These Security Force guys are more dangerous than any criminal Cooper has faced in Johannesburg, and he has to tread lightly around them in order to find the real killer. The story takes place just after the passing of the Immorality Act, banning sexual relations between the races, so you know that's going to play a big role in the story. And indeed it does, as Cooper strips away layer after layer of propriety and deception to reveal the not-so-innocent heart of this supposed "Godly" town, he gets closer and closer to being a victim himself. There's a kind of silly semi-supernatural element to it, as Cooper sometimes hears the voice of his old Scottish drill sergeant in his subconscious yelling at him to keep digging deeper and not to give in. While the bulk of the book is pretty engaging and fun, the climax is a bit of a letdown. The villain, when unmasked is somewhat disappointing, having been motivated by largely invisible extreme pathologies. I never like it when an otherwise perfectly decent crime story features a loony villain, I guess I prefer things to be more mundane. On the whole, however, it's a decent debut with some great atmosphere and a protagonist I wouldn't mind spending another book with. (And indeed, Cooper returns in the Durban-set Let the Dead Die).
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 October 2010
First Sentence: Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper switched off the engine and looked out through the dirty windscreen.

Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is sent from Johannesburg to Jacob's Rest after a call comes in reporting a possible murder. What he finds is the body of the town's Afrikaner police captain, William Pretorius, and a confrontation with his volatile family. Members of the powerful Security Branch also arrive and push Cooper out, leaving his to investigate a peeping tom case unsolved by the dead chief. Clues and determination lead Cooper to Pretorius secrets and the motive for his death.

"A Beautiful Place to Die" gives a stark portrayal of South Africa during apartheid and the Immorality Act banning sexual conduct between whites and nonwhites. Although I was able to look the terms up, a glossary might have been helpful for those of us not as familiar with the history and terminology.

Cooper makes a sympathetic protagonist with shades of Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge character. While it's an interesting homage, it also felt like a cheap, and not very satisfying, way of telling us about Cooper's background. We do learn, though other means, some of this background throughout the story, but much remains vague about him. However, all the characters seemed stereotypical, from the Jewish doctor and his wife, to the enigmatic Zulu constable, to the storm trooper Security Branch and on. There was very little dimension to the majority of the characters.

The plot conveys how unjust and brutal living was under apartheid. While interesting and educational, it's not enough to make the book work. The mystery itself, and its investigation, became almost secondary. It did have a number of well-executed twists and revelations, along with suspense and some brutality. I did identify one villain early but not another. However, my largest complaint was that, although realistic, I found the ending unsatisfying.

I certainly don't regret having read this book. It was interesting and I did learn from it. However, I don't believe this is a series with which I shall continue.
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on 12 May 2012
A Beautiful Place to Die has all the ingredients of a good crime novel - social tension between individuals and groups, interesting historical context, excellent characterization, strong sense of place, good pacing and a well constructed plot. The novel is set not long after the National Party came to power in 1948 and started to push a strong apartheid agenda and Nunn uses this context to good effect, especially the simmering tensions between Dutch Afrikaners, English White, Blacks and Coloureds, and even Jewish refugees from Germany, and exploring the blurred lines between these groups. The characters are well penned and memorable, and the dialogue and scenes were well judged. The sense of place is particularly strong, capturing both the landscape of rural South Africa and the geography of apartheid in terms of how space was carved up and traversed. The plot builds nicely, with a number of blinds and twists, though ultimately in striving for increasing tension the end wobbles a little by stretching plausibility to the limit and becoming a little too over-melodramatic. This was a shame as the book really was excellent up until this point. Regardless, there is much to like about A Beautiful Place to Die, and Nunn has the foundation for an enjoyable series.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
On the surface `A Beautiful Place To Die' is a fast moving `whodunnit' thriller with a 'good-cop hero' to be admired by readers, and with the added charm of location around a country town in the beautiful veldt of South Africa. However throughout the hero's investigations he is subject to high levels of uncontrollable influence with perhaps an over abundance of hidden secrets to be discovered and with credibility stretched for some of those he encounters. This leads to a few abrupt changes in scenarios as the narrative unfolds, with parts of the plot hardly plausible, characters not fully explained, and outcomes of relationships incomplete. Even so, as a `whodunnit' there is a compelling degree of intrigue, a steady build up of excitement, and a reasonable conclusion - but the book's added special ingredient is a forceful indictment of South Africa's insidious Apartheid system and an exposé of man's inhumanity. Malla Nunn skilfully lays bare political ideology, racism, bigotry, religious mania, injustice, violence etc. via interwoven relationships and personality conflicts. This aspect of `A Beautiful Place To Die' lifts it above the status of a normal thriller and overcomes storyline criticisms - but short of a 5-star rating.
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VINE VOICEon 24 August 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This was a reasonable who-done-it style narrative, with enough interest to keep me going to the end but a little thin on the character development and a bit confusing at times.

The historical setting was its strength - an insight into the apartheid system of 1950's South Africa. The story revolves around the murder of Afrikaans policeman, Captain Willem Pretorius and the gradual unravelling of the details by Detective Emmanuel Cooper.
This was not a comfortable time to be black in South Africa and I did find some of the brutality a bit disturbing.

I thnk that, had I realised this was to be the first in a series, then I would probably have avoided it. Although the progression of apartheid up until its dissolution might make for interesting reading, I doubt I will be following Detective Emmanuel Cooper in his next adventure.
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VINE VOICEon 3 June 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A Beautiful Place To Die and the first novel by author Malla Nunn. I won't go into too much plot detail and spoil any suprises for you. This book is set in Africa during the 1950's when aparthied was in force, and concerns the brutal murder of Captain Willem Pretorius an Afrikaner police office. Detective Emmanuel Cooper is sent to investigate and discovers there are hidden secrets in Captain Willem's past - secrets that some will kill to preserve.

Malla Nunn was born in Swaziland, Southern Africa and has used her knowledge of the culture to create a facinating book with well fleshed out characters at a time when the colour of a persons skin matters more than justice. This is a very enjoyable book set in troubled times - I hope there will be more forthcoming novels from Malla Nunn.
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VINE VOICEon 24 July 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Malla Nunn's debut novel "A Beautiful Place To Die" cleverly blends a who-dunnit thriller with life in South Africa during the apartheid. The main strength of the book is the description of Africa in the 1950's and the relationships between all the people in Jacob's Rest at that time, as well as the description of the town itself and surrounding areas.

Although I was intrigued enough in Captain Pretorius' murder to keep reading I felt that the plot jumped around quite a bit and some of the twists were not entirely believable. However the pace quickened towards the ending and the loose ends were tied up into a satisfactory ending.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading books set in African history.
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