Friday, March 15, 2013

Blessed Are The Dead by Malla Nunn

A beautiful Zulu girl, Amahle, is found lying dead in the open. There is no apparent mark upon her, and the body has been laid out as if she were sleeping, covered with wildflowers. Amahle is a daughter of the Zulu chief, from his third wife. She lives in his compound and works as a housemaid at the large farm nearby. She has been poisoned with a small shot in her back.

This is South Africa, and everything is touched by the institutionalized racism known as apartheid. Amahle lives a divided life. She has status in the Zulu world from her father’s position and her beauty. She will never be more than a second-class citizen in the white world, although her beauty there draws attention. That attention can be a double-edged sword; it can bring her attention other servants don’t receive but that attention is not all positive.

Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper and his subordinate, Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala are sent from the city to investigate. Cooper was recently reinstated as a police sergeant when his mixed race designation was changed to make him an official white person again. Raised as a white person, his enemies had conspired to have his racial designation changed, and he lived in the world between white and black for a time, learning much about both worlds. This is his first murder case after his reinstatement, and his success is critical to secure his place on the force.

There are plenty of suspects. Amahle is about to be married off to an elderly man for her bride price by her father. There are the usual tribal jealousies that arise in a multi-wife compound, as each wife fights for their children to be the most favored. To all indications, Amahle wants more than a traditional tribal life and may have been using her beauty as her ticket out to a different life in the city. There is a white boy, strange at best and perhaps mentally ill, running in the hills and disrupting the investigation. The local police are not helping and are actively interfering in the investigation. The whites in power fight against being investigated, pulling in favors from their influential friends to hinder Cooper whenever he gets close to a secret they don’t want uncovered. Can Cooper push through all the difficulties to find the murderer?

This is the third book in Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series. Cooper is an interesting character, a man of contradictions who lives in the netherworld between the highly segregated social structures separating those in the native culture from those in power. He must not only face the difficulties of a murder investigation, but fight the rigid rules of this society to succeed. The reader is transported to this alternate world, and learns about native culture as well as the strictures of apartheid. The plotting is well-done, and the eventual unmasking of the murderer is a surprise that will have readers eager for more of Cooper’s adventures. This book is recommended for mystery readers.

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