In the early 1950’s in the small South African town of Jacob’s Rest the police captain, Willem Pretorius, is found brutally murdered. When Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is sent to investigate he struggles against the backdrop of the newly instituted racial segregation laws (apartheid) . Pretorius’ Afrikaner family want quick vengeance: they distrust Cooper who is English and assume it is the black community or coloureds who have killed their patriarch. At the same time the Security Police descend on the town and work on the theory that Pretorius was killed by a communist or other political activist and they soon sideline Cooper from their investigation.
Of the many striking things about this book the one that is likely to stay with me longest is the unflichingly honest picture it paints of the time and place in which it is set. So many engrossing details of both the political and physical setting are provided that I easily felt myself in the town of Jacob’s Rest with its roads for whites and its kaffir paths and its segregated Sunday church services with potluck dinners. I felt awkward and angry as the realities of the segregation laws were demonstrated through the story playing out but despite my discomfort I found myself unwilling to leave the place even for a moment and read the entire book in a single sitting.
On top of the setting the book has stunning characters. Cooper struggles with nightmares from his days in the trenches during the war and regularly argues with the voice of his former Sergeant Major. Although white he is distrusted by the powerful Afrikaners but also finds it hard to be accepted by the myriad second class citizens although, ultimately, it is a myriad collection of these people, including captain Pretorius’ Zulu ‘brother’ Constable Samuel Shabalala, who help him with his investigation. But it’s not only the sympathetic characters who are brilliantly depicted: Lieutenant Piet Lapping of the Special Branch is one of the most loathsome men you’ll find in crime fiction, all the more so because he’s entirely believable.
Of course none of this would be worth much if the book didn’t also tell a gripping story and there’s a real old-fashioned whodunnit here. In trying to uncover who killed Willem Pretorius Cooper uncovers a series of crimes that have been left unsolved because the victims weren’t white and also learns of Pretorius’ own moral lapses. He races to find what these events may have had to do with Pretorius’ death as he tries to salvage his own career from being ruined by the Special Branch.
This is yet another book that has everything I look for in my crime fiction and had me alternating between indignant mutterings under my breath, heart-in-my-mouth fear and more than a few tears.