Written by Malla Nunn — International crime fiction sometimes feels like a contest between the Scandinavians and the Irish. If so, the South Africans are closing ground on both of them. Think of writers like Margie Orford, Roger Smith and Mike Nicol, just to name a few. Although less well known, Swaziland born, Australia-based author Malla Nunn deserves a place among this group. Silent Valley is her third book, set in 1950s South Africa and featuring the character of Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper.
A Beautiful Place to Die won rave reviews in 2008. It involved Cooper investigating the murder of a prominent Afrikaner policeman, Captain Willem Pretorius, in the small town of Jacob’s Rest on South Africa’s border with Mozambique. Her second, Let the Dead Lie (2010) saw Cooper expelled from the police and reduced to working on the docks of Durban. It didn’t do nearly so well, although I’ve heard some very good reports about it.
Silent Valley sees Cooper back in the force and in familiar territory, investigating the murder of a young girl – the bride-to-be of a powerful, overbearing Zulu chief – in a remote part of South Africa. There’s a truckload of suspects including everyone from the head of the local police to members of the white family she worked for as a domestic, with a bit of black magic and sexual deviancy thrown into the mix for good measure. Luckily for Cooper, he’s got his posse from the first book to help him solve the crime: his police patron, the malevolent Colonel Niekerk; Zweigman, an old Jewish doctor and holocaust survivor; and most importantly Shabalala, his native police offsider.
Silent Valley is a police procedural, albeit one far superior to many of its counterparts in terms of the writing and sense of place. Nunn’s take on race politics is finely observed and pitch-perfect. She brilliantly depicts how Apartheid mutated relations between the various ethnic groups, including how whites were emotionally and psychologically hollowed out by the system they presided over.
Although he occasionally comes across as bit too good to be true for the period he inhabits, Cooper’s a great delivery vehicle for this content. Half-British, half-Afrikaner, he is still recovering from a broken marriage and the carnage of World War II. His ability to take an outsider’s view continually conflicts with his job as a white policeman and the power this gives him.
For the most part Nunn’s able to pack all this nuance and detail into the story in the way that does not interfere with Cooper’s investigation. That said, I thought Silent Valley suffered from the same problem as A Beautiful Place to Die. It’s too long. Although I wanted to get to the end, at times my attention wavered. It could be shorter without losing any of its narrative power and suspense.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars