Written by Malla Nunn — Present Darkness is the fourth installment in Malla Nunn’s series of novels starring Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper. The cover – a picture of two rhinos ambling across a dry plain – could be a South African tourism advertisement, except for the grey clouds and burnt orange landscape, which hint at the darkness staining the rainbow nation. The novel is set in South Africa in the early 1950s, shortly after the introduction of the racial segregation laws, which became known as apartheid. A difficult time for a nation divided by race and steeped in corruption.
A D-Day veteran, Cooper grew up in the slums of Sophiatown, a Johannesburg suburb known for existing outside racial segregation laws, before coming around to the right side of the law. It’s this experience with gangs and violence that gives him an understanding of the criminals on both sides of the law. He’s been looking forward to his Christmas break, spent with his mixed-race partner Davida and their child Rebekah, but instead he’s at a crime scene in Parkview, investigating a home invasion at the house of a white school principal and his wife who has been bashed and left for dead. Their teenage daughter was left cowering in the kitchen.
Cooper instantly sees that something is wrong. The house has been ransacked, but several valuables have been left behind. All that’s obviously missing is the family’s car – a huge red Mercedes that would stick out like a sore thumb, making finding the criminals simple. But Lieutenant Walter Mason is keen on clearing things up and going on his Christmas holiday. He instructs Cooper to ignore the obvious inconsistencies – the lying daughter, the black man from the provinces found bleeding in the backyard – and follow a trail of clues that seems a little too easy to follow. These clues point straight to Aaron Shabalala, youngest son of Zulu Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala, a good friend of Cooper’s. Despite being forced off the case by Mason, Cooper enlists the help of Shabalala, along with an old friend Dr Daniel Zweigman, both men to whom Cooper owes his life. Together they set out to free Aaron, despite all the evidence against him, and his shaky alibi.
As they investigate the crime, another story plays out in another part of the country. A teenage prostitute is snatched from the alleyway where she plies her trade and taken to a farmhouse somewhere in the desert. Held captive, and certain that she’ll die at the hands of the one she calls the big man, she breaks free from her cell and takes her chance with the heat, the hunger and the wild animals as she searches for a way out. The two stories interweave, brought together by one of the two coincidences that prove to be the only weak points in an otherwise gripping plot.
Aside from the tense plot, and Nunn’s superb evocation of the slums and poverty in and around Johannesburg – both factors which dig deeper and deeper into the dark heart of South Africa – the book’s strength lies in its characters. They are men and women who are products of their place and time, struggling with poverty, racism, and corruption. It may seem far fetched looking back that a white police officer would have risked so much, but Nunn does well to make Cooper a complex yet believable character, with well defined motivation and solid morals. At times the dialogue can seem like a lesson in South African history, explaining instead of showing, but this does not detract from what is a compelling book, shining a light on one of the darkest eras in recent history.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars