About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn

35. – 667.) Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn – Every year a special author or two renders me grateful to be a reader of mysteries. Earlier this year L.R. Wright with The Suspect was such an author. This summer I am glad to have found Malla Nunn.

In a departure from my usual reading I start with the third in her series involving South African police Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper and Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala. It is 1953 and apartheid controls South African life.

They are assigned to investigate a murder at Roselet, a village on the edge of the Drakensberg Mountains, a few hours away from Durban.

On their arrival they find the deceased, Amahle, is the beautiful 17 year old daughter of the local Zulu Chief, Matebula. Their first challenge is to gain access to the body located near a path on a foothill to the mountains. A Zulu impi (fighting force) bars the way. It takes a combination of diplomacy and assertion of the rights of white domination to get by the Zulu warriors.

They find a body with no obvious cause of death. There is a thumbtack sized wound in the back.

Shabalala, displaying impressive tracking skills that reminded me of Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte, quickly determines the body has been moved there after death.

In Roselet, they find the officer, Constable Desmond Bagley, in charge of the local detachment curiously disinterested in the murder.

They seek the aid of Dr. Margaret Daglish in determining the cause of death but she is unwilling to conduct any examination of the body. She allows them to move the body into a cool cellar until a doctor can come from Durban.

There is a moment when a small shiver goes down my back as Shabalala speaks to the spirit of Amahle. While Cooper professes not to be superstitious he has his own voices from WW II.

During her life Amahle has been reluctant to reveal herself:

“Keeping your true self hidden from others isn’t a trick,” Emmanuel said. “It’s a sacrifice”.

With the locals uncooperative and volunteering no information Cooper and Shabalala settle in for the investigation.

Pressing on they determine that Amahle was a maid for the Reed family, the most prominent farmers in the valley. The Reeds continually flout their superiority as members of the English ruling class.

An adjacent farm is owned by Boer, Sampie Paulus. The Boer neighbours are clearly resentful of the English Reeds.

At the Matebula kraal the mourning is mixed with tensions over the economic consequences of Amahle’s death. She would have demanded a huge bride price payable to her father.

Cooper works easily with Shabalala. While pragmatically accepting the rigid race distinctions Cooper lacks overt prejudice. His youth amidst the different races of Sophiatown has made him far more egalitarian than most white South Africans. In our post-apartheid era it is shocking how completely the white population dominated black South Africans.

The beautiful valley between the sharply rising foothills is an important part of the plot.

Nunn creates a mystery that combines the era, the geography and people of South Africa of the early 1950’s. The mystery could not have been set in a different place and time.

I appreciated her judicious use of Afrikaner and Zulu words. There are enough to give the flavour of the community but not too many to need a dictionary.

The process of detection involves traditional skills (tracking as mentioned above), science, skilled questions and an understanding of community and culture.

Nunn describes Cooper’s ability to do more than interview:

“The doctor was ready to talk and he was there to listen. In this lifting of burdens lay the unspoken beauty of police work.”

Blessed are the Dead is a brilliant book. I will soon be returning to the lives of Cooper and Shabalala.

I thank Hannah Conlin at Simon & Schuster for sending me the book. (Aug. 4/12)


  1. Coincidentally, I just finished Blessed are the Dead a week ago. I was in its grip for the days in which I read it. Could not put it down.

    The writing is excellent, the thoughts and dialogue very carefully and thoughtfully written.

    I enjoyed this book. Reading it is an experience.

    You absolutely must run out and get A Beautiful Way to Die, which tells of some of the terrible horrors of apartheid -- and here, regarding the lack of free will of African women and their oppression by wealthy and powerful whites, whomever they are.

    And then read Let the Dead Lie, an interesting book all around.

    Malla Nunn is terrific. I heard an interview with her by the blogger at "Book'd." The link was posted at Fair Dinkum Crime.

    She thinks so much about every aspect of her books, her characters. I think they're real people to her.

    Nunn grew up in Swaziland. Her parents, fed up with the apartheid regime and laws telling them what to do, left and moved to Australia. She has spoken extensively to her relatives who lived in Durban and elsewhere.

    Her books are to be savored.

  2. kathy d.: Thanks for the comment.

    I do have a copy of A Beautiful Place to Die and will be reading the book.

    Nunn brought out the reality of apartheid far more clearly by its daily application than a scholarly analysis.

  3. I've heard a lot about Malla Nunn recently and I am keen to try her. Thanks for the review. Her list of fans is clearly growing.

  4. Bill - Thanks for the fine review. I agree completely that Malla Nunn has an awful lot of talent and the ability to evoke a place and time effectively. She brings larger social issues down to the human level too, and I respect that.

  5. Sarah: Thanks for the comment. I do not believe you will be disappointed when you try her.

  6. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I appreciated she let the social issues come out through the story.

  7. I have read and enjoyed the first two books by this talented author. I'm looking forward to reading this one, too, which I think is not quite out yet in the UK. I'll come back & read your review in detail after that (as I prefer to read reviews after I've read the book, probably rather odd of me!).

  8. Maxine: Thanks for the comment. If you are odd than I am odd with you! I might skim a review before reading a book but, until I have read the book, I really only want to know if the reviewer liked the book.

  9. I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. Have yet to get to it, but I am now putting it in the pile as next to read. Thanks for the review.

  10. John: Thanks for the comment. I shall be very interested to read your review.