Book Review: Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn

Let dead lie Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn
Pan Macmillan, 2010. 

The year 1953 finds Emmanuel Cooper in Durban, no longer a policeman after the Morton’s fork he faced in A Beautiful Place to Die, working in the shipyards with other ex-army men of a variety of racial origins. Manual labour affords him some comfort as he recovers from the earlier events and from his previous wartime experiences, but he’s eager to accept an offer from his old boss and sort-of mentor, Major van Niekerk, to do some undercover work around the docks, identifying smugglers and other low-life. While out one night gathering intelligence, he stumbles across the body of a young boy, whom he quickly establishes has been murdered. After an altercation with three men, Cooper calls the police anonymously to report the death. Although he knows the risks to himself, he can’t ignore the boy’s plight, and so shadows the police as they investigate. Before he knows it, he’s a suspect in the crime. And this is only the start of a huge, and convoluted, series of troubles, scrapes and double-crosses in store for Cooper, involving an increasingly large cast of characters, some of whom appeared in the earlier novel.

For its first half, Let the Dead Lie is a compellingly exciting read, partly as a fast-moving investigation of a crime, and partly as a social commentary on the repressive and evil society of 1950s South Africa. Yet by the second half of this long novel, I felt that the pace was flagging a bit, and the confusion factor was getting unrealistically high as yet more people seem to know about private conversations and actions when they shouldn’t have done; or it is revealed that informants have followed Cooper’s every move – steps that to me often either seemed unnecessary or made me question why he was even being asked to undertake various tasks if the outcomes were already known. Throughout, though, the sense of social justice is a very strong theme, both the racism endemic in this cruel regime, in which even people who are married can’t admit their status, and in which poverty is rife, with many people living in awful conditions, relying on charitable handouts from the religiously inclined to survive.

Cooper is both a participant and an observer of this melee of events and of the lives of the many people he encounters during the novel – and those he meets seem to come from almost every possible race or background, so the reader gets a full picture of Durban life in the build-up to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps, for a novel, the picture is somewhat too full, blurring the effectiveness of the plot – but whatever one’s feelings about that, nobody could doubt that this is a novel with a big conscience, intent on revealing many shameful injustices that were accepted as the norm in their time but now, thankfully, exposed for what they really were.


I thank the publisher, Pan Macmillan, for my copy of this book. From the press release accompanying the book: Malla Nunn grew up in Swaziland before moving to Perth. She studied theatre in the USA, where she began writing and directing short films. Her first novel, A Beautiful Place to Die, won the Sisters in Crime Davitt award for best crime novel by an Australian female author. It was shortlisted for an Edgar award for best novel. Malla Nunn lives in Sydney. 

My review of the first in this series, A Beautiful Place to Die.

Read other reviews of Let the Dead Lie at: Reactions to Reading; Murder by the Book and The Ember (includes a discussion with the author about this book).

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn

  1. Maxine – What a thoughtful, helpful, lovely review. I have a low threshold for “believability” issues, too, but honestly, I am still keeping this on my TBR list. It deals with such important issues, and teaches about a an important time with which I am not well-enough acquainted. That, in itself, is enough to really draw me to this book.

  2. I think you’ve teased out the things that didn’t work quite as well as they might have done with this book, though it does have much to recommend it too. I believe there’s a third book in the works and I will be interested to see where that one takes Cooper.

  3. I’m loving reading this book, which has taken me awhile due to family and other responsibilities. I think it’s well-written and the main character is an interesting, thoughtful and sensitive guy, except when he regresses to some brutal actions himself.
    I find Nunn’s own experiences, her upbringing in Swaziland in a “mixed-race community,” and sensitivity make this book differ from the very fast-paced thrillers that take place in South Africa, written by male authors. Nunn brings a different style to the table, more mellow and thoughtful, which I appreciate.

  4. Awesome, I have this one. I think her best writing skill is her drawing the reader into her story quickly. I remember her first book gripping me from page 1. I can’t wait to read this one. Thanks Maxine.

  5. Thanks, all, for the comments. Kathy, I think your remarks are particularly appropriate, thank you. I agree that Cooper is the nicest male protagonist I have encountered for a long while, and I hope that he finds some personal happiness, and is restored to health, in future…but this being crime fiction…not so sure. Also you make an interesting point about South African authors – I am familiar with Deon Meyer who does both thoughtful and action packed, though perhaps not as introspective as Malla Nunn. (Meyer writes about different chief protagonists, but they all have similar internal lives in the same sense as Peter Temple’s “different” protagonists). The only other South African crime author I have read recently is Margie Orford, and I didn’t find her book (Like Clockwork) had the same reflective power as Nunn or Meyer. (I’ve read books recently set in other African countries.) I shall have to investigate this aspect further….

  6. Thanks, Maxine, for your thoughts on my comments. I am very taken with the more mellow pace of Nunn’s book even though there is a deadline, as there was in Meyer’s “Thirteen Hours,” which I read as if on a roller coaster. And I keep thinking about their different styles, and lives a male author, who wrote in Afrikaans, who had one type of life experience, on the one hand, yet a woman author who grew up in Swaziland, as she says in a “mixed-race community,” whose family moved to Australia because they didn’t want to be told where to live, to work, to live with, i.e., they fled apartheid discrimination. It’s a different experience than Meyer’s. And, from what I see, the other current male writers are writing fast-paced thrillers. Meyer has some sensitivity, but I kept worrying where the book was going and what he’d say about every character. I held my breath. With Nunn, I know she is telling a mystery, but she is showing in subtle ways, the inequalities, and expressing emotions about it–and I know I’ve winced several times at scenes she’s describing, and I can feel pain and shock at the lives, including those of the very poor.
    I’m so glad this discussion is happening; this is the reason to read and ponder others’ opinions and think more deeply about books and exchange ideas. Thanks for hosting this.

  7. That’s fascinating background, Kathy, I did not know this about the author and it does perhaps partly explain her perspective in her novels. I agree she is far more subtle than Meyer in portraying relationships and peronality, and also has a more overt agenda in her commentary on the society in which she has set her novels, which to me is rather reminiscent of the goals of Sjowall and Wahloo, who of course were writing contemporary novels. Poor Cooper has a very long time indeed to go before things changed in South Africa…..

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