Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review of Present Darkness by Malla Nunn (Emily Bestler Books, 2013)

1953, Johannesburg, South Africa. As with other cops, Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is hoping that no-one is murdered in the days leading up to Christmas. While his colleagues are looking forward to a holiday away from the city, Cooper is hoping to spend time with his coloured partner and child, a strictly illegal relationship in the apartheid country. Their hopes looked dashed after a white couple are assaulted, the man dying in the hours afterwards, but the positive identification of a black boy and his friend as the assailants by their daughter appears to lead to a quick result. For Cooper it creates a major headache as the boy is the son of Cooper’s friend, Zulu detective, Samuel Shabalala. Cooper is certain the boy is innocent, however the daughter is sticking to her story, the lead detective Lieutenant Mason is determined to wrap things up quickly – planting evidence as required – and the boy refuses to provide an alibi for himself. To make things more difficult, the hard-headed Mason has made it clear he will not tolerate anyone disrupting the case and he’s prepared to shatter Cooper’s home life if necessary. Cooper, however, is made of stern stuff, as are his friends Shabalala, and Dr Daniel Zweigman, a survivor of German concentration camps, and he knows the terrain, having been raised in the Sophiatown ghetto.

Present Darkness is the fourth book in the Detective Emmanuel Cooper series set in South Africa in the 1950s. In this outing, Cooper has returned to Johannesburg, the city in which he was raised, and is living in secret with Davina, his coloured partner, and their child. The plot concerns the assault and murder of a white couple and the framing of a teenage black boy for the crime. The sting in the tail is the boy is the son of Cooper’s friend, Zulu detective Samuel Shabalala.  Cooper wants justice, his boss Lieutenant Mason wants to see the boy hang and is quite prepared to not only ignore evidence but to fabricate it. Mason is a bully and full of dirty tricks, though it’s not clear why he’s so keen to close the case so quickly and to push Cooper to one side. Nunn once again does a nice job of detailing the lived realities of apartheid South Africa, with its marked prejudices and oppression, corrupt policing, its dangerous ghettos, and illicit relations and friendships across the race divide. And it has a strong sense of place – both in the city and the countryside – and historical contextualisation. The three friends at the heart of this, and the other books – Cooper, Shabalala, and Dr Zweigman – again shine, forming an interesting and engaging trio. While the other books take a slightly more expansive view, this tale focuses very much on personal danger – the framing of an innocent boy and the fraught attempt to see justice served, and the threat to Cooper’s new family. Nunn nicely builds the tale up to a dramatic denouement, though the resolution seemed a little contrived and held together with plot devices. Overall, another entertaining addition to an excellent series.

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