When I try to understand people who say they don't really know how to read science fiction, one way for me to sympathize is to think about my relationship with mystery novels. I've read ones I liked, even that I count among my favorite books. But they have their own rhythms, and those are often foreign to me. There are patterns to a mystery that are unusual in other books, and they can make it tricky for me to get my feet under me.
Malla Nunn's A Beautiful Place to Die comes highly recommended by Aarti, who glows not only about this book, but about the whole series of Detective Emmanuel Cooper novels. Most of my favorite mysteries take place in fascinating settings, so this sounds right up my alley. But it turns out, reading this book, that Dr. Siri Paiboun and Mma Precious Ramotswe have more in common than I realized, and Emmanuel Cooper represents a different type of mystery. And I'm still not quite sure how I feel about that.
As a mystery, as far as I can tell, this is a great book. Cooper is sent from Johannesburg to a small town called Jacob's Rest after a confusing phone call indicates that there's been a murder. It turns out that the captain of the local police has been shot; really, there should be a whole squad of detectives on the case. But before he can get backup, the Security Branch shows up--and if you want scary government bullies, I think that Afrikaners in 1950s South Africa are just what you're looking for.
So, Detective Cooper unravels the secrets that Captain Pretorius has been keeping, and the small town scandals, while trying to avoid the dangerous attentions of the Security boys, who are looking for a political arrest. Along the way, we meet dozens of characters from all walks of life--and South Africa is full of different walks of life. There are black people, or natives, colored, or mixed-race, and whites, who are divided into English and Afrikaner, or Dutch. It's a little confusing until you get used to it, but that's nothing to the oppression that the division bring to the people who live with them.
We meet all sorts of characters; the deceased captain had a slew of burly, angry sons; the Old Jew who runs the local general store, in spite of being a skilled surgeon; the native police officer, Shabalala, who grew up with the victim. Cooper makes allies and enemies and tries to get closer to the truth of who Captain Pretorius was and what someone might have wanted to kill him.
Okay, so let me get at the thing that bothered me most about this book, which was the women. There were a few--Pretorius's fervidly nationalistic widow; Dr. Zweigman's nervous wife; the shy brown mouse Davida, who works for him and lives with her grandmother. There are not many, though, and not much is going on with any of them that does not directly relate to the story; for the most part, the women don't get the great character moments that really drive a mystery.
And then there's Cooper's attitude toward them. Aarti points out that his longing, his objectification, his wavering between lust and protectiveness, are a manifestation of how insidious the power imbalance of a society like this can be--even our hero can't help but be aware of the fact that his status as a white man gives him complete power over these women. But I feel like this is deeper, like he just doesn't see them. I think it goes further than the power imbalance would imply.
Honestly, I would have been completely turned off the book by how I felt about the female characters, if the author had been a man. But the author, Malla Nunn, is a woman, and that leaves me flailing a bit. On one hand, I'm still kind of turned off, but on the other, I can't help but feel that a female author must have been doing this on purpose, making a point not just with Cooper's feelings (which I agree, can fit into his character and society in useful and relevant ways) but also with her narrative depictions. I'm still having a really hard time reconciling how I feel about this.
(It also brings up an interesting question of whether it's fair to judge a female author differently than a male author, or to bring assumptions based on the author's gender to the table, but I'm going to save that for an upcoming post about another book whose female characters have me scratching my head; stay tuned.)
Something else that threw me off with this book--and I think this worked really well--was the sense, as you're going through, of what Cooper is fighting for. In most novels, even if the detective is far from home with few resources, there is a sense that if he finds out the truth and gathers enough evidence, that's what's important--he can then bring these things to some sort of central authority and come down on the perpetrator with the power of the system. But Emmanuel Cooper is part of a system that is more horrifying than even the perpetrator of the crime. When he's on his own, running scared from murderers and madmen and politically powerful racist bastards, I couldn't see where he could turn, or how anyone could be brought to justice.
This adds an enormous layer of tension and, I think, of verisimilitude, since the fact is that the white hats don't always get to save the day. It also makes me hate South Africa even more acutely, knowing that even a good man with the power of the law on his side can't save the world.
I highly recommend the audiobook, too. The reader does an amazing job with the accents and voices, and that makes an enormous difference, I think, in this world where everyone is so clearly separated by status and origins. A fascinating book.