Book Title: LET THE DEAD LIE
Author: Malla Nunn
Publisher: Pan MacMillan Australia
No of Pages: 392
DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA, 1953 Forced to resign from his position of Detective Sergeant and re-classified as 'mixed race' after an incident involving a young black woman, Emmanuel Cooper winds up powerless and alone in the tough coastal city of Durban, mixing labouring with surveillance work for his old boss, Major van Nickerk. Patrolling the freight yards one night, he stumbles upon the body of a young boy and the detective in him cannot, or will not, walk away. When two more bodies - this time an older English woman and her maid - are discovered at his boarding house, he unwittingly becomes the prime suspect in a triple murder case.
The second Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper book LET THE DEAD LIE has now been released, following on the from highly praised A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE.
LET THE DEAD LIE takes Cooper into different physical circumstances, working in a very bleak city, doing menial labour and nightly surveillance work, there's a sense of loss and depression surrounding him. This rapidly changes to desperation as he is implicated in further murders and has a limited time, and difficult circumstances in which to clear his own name.
Readers of the first of the Cooper books will be aware that this series is based within apartheid South Africa in the early 1950's. That's a very bleak, uncomfortable and disturbing location and timeframe for readers to be pushed into. It's made even more discomforting with the move to the urban setting - somehow there's a loss of a sense of some beauty, probably because there's less of the natural world. The vast majority of people that Cooper encounters in this book are down-trodden or controlled totally by their "racial situation". There are some rare exceptions to that of course, and there's certainly some signs of people making the best of an appalling situation - but sadly there are also signs of depravity and prejudice and tensions within racial groups. Somehow this makes the whole apartheid situation, and the nature of South Africa in that time darker, more depressing, more disheartening.
Cooper himself remains an interesting, challenging character. Not quite an unreliable narrator, he's certainly a flawed human being. Which is something that really appeals to this reader - central characters that engage, make you think, wince or even dislike on occasions. Especially as Cooper has a good streak - his motivations are good, perhaps his methods less clear and sometimes his own relationships are at best hamfisted or at worst manipulative. But it's that sense of manipulation that is strongest in this book - from the "State" manipulating people's rights and opportunities based on a mindlessly arbitrary classification of "race"; through people within those race groups manipulating their own situation, and those around them; to the way that the race groups do (or do not) co-operate or respect each other as well.
Where the circumstances of the setting of the book are so overwhelming, it can sometimes be that the narrative can get a little lost in the crowd. It's an interesting thing that in LET THE DEAD LIE, there is sufficient description and background to the world in which Cooper is operating to give a clear indication of what it must have been like, without losing too much impetus in the investigation. That investigation also twists and turns nicely and quite realistically giving the reader a sneaking suspicion that whilst some things are obvious, others may not be as they seem.
Undoubtedly reading these stories isn't a particularly easy or pleasant task. The world is unpalatable, the society confrontational and profoundly shocking. Cooper himself isn't a knight in shining armour. He is, however, a great survivor and let's hope this series survives with him.