Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Beautiful Place to Die

A Beautiful Place to Die, by Malla Nunn

I was intrigued by the description of this mystery set in 1950s South Africa.  A lone detective is sent to deal with the murder of the small town's biggest landowner, a Boer and captain who kept a tight hold on the town and had a reputation for strict rectitude.  His sons are demanding an arrest yesterday, and then the secret police show up...

The setting was fantastic.  Loved that part.  The detective I wasn't such a fan of; I didn't like him much and he was portrayed as puzzlingly unracist.  He sounds modern, in a book that is set 60 years ago in a country that set up one of the most racist societies ever. There is an explanation of that at the end of the story, but I don't really buy it; it doesn't seem much of a reason that he's the only non-racist guy in all of 1952 South Africa.

Now that sets up an interesting question for me.  Let's say you have the excellent intention of writing a story set in a society guaranteed to offend virtually any modern person--South Africa.  The usual two options for a detective are an official of the police or a meddling amateur; both come with pitfalls in this scenario.  An official, in order to be able to poke around and have enough rank, will have to be pretty white.  At the same time, he's your protagonist and needs to be reasonably sympathetic.  Is it possible to write a realistic, yet sympathetic, protagonist in this situation?  Maybe not.  As much as I dislike to read characters who are modern people dressed in historical costume, I might have to give a pass on this one.

The mystery was...eh.  I didn't care for certain things, and they overshadowed the rest of it for me.


4 comments:

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

Oh, did you find his lack of racism puzzling? I thought it was explainable by his own murky racial background -- that he was perpetually aware of what his life would be if he hadn't been classified as white.

Jean said...

Maybe I'm too pessimistic, but yeah. I've been reading Kaffir Boy at the same time, see, and his descriptions make Nunn's South Africa look sweet and nice. The thing is, Mathabane's experiences of his society were so awful that you pretty much couldn't set a mystery novel there.

I can see where a real person who was sort of semi-passing like that would perhaps be more sensitive than others (although I think chances are even that he would be paranoid and *more* vicious), but this guy seems unrealistically non-racist to me. OTOH, I also can't see how to write a white SA policeman character acceptable to modern audiences without making him unrealistically non-racist.

Debra Beilke said...

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Jean said...

Thank you!