June 4, 2014

Review: Present Darkness

Present Darkness The fourth Emmanuel Cooper mystery
By Malla Nunn
Available now from Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Review copy

The Emmanuel Cooper books just might be my favorite ongoing mystery series.  The series started in 2009 with A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE, set in 1952 South Africa.  Although PRESENT DARKNESS comes three books later, it is only one year later in story time.

The setting is incredibly important to these novels.  Apartheid legislation started in 1948.  It segregated people - white, black, mixed race, Indian - as well as services.  It also made sexual relations and marriage between people of different races illegal.  Cooper, a detective sergeant, grew up in a mixed-race slum, growing up as a "white kaffir."  In the present, he seeks to hide his sympathies even as he helps find justice for those the law would ignore.  It's becoming harder, especially since he has to hide all details of his private life.  His girlfriend is mixed race and they have a daughter together.

PRESENT DARKNESS starts with two separate crimes.  A prostitute is kidnapped.  A white couple is critically beaten, and their daughter names two black men as the attackers.  The first crime takes a long time to tie into the story, although the updates on the girl's situation are quite harrowing and make one hope that she'll somehow escape a grisly fate.  The second seems like an open and shut case.  However, one of the men she names is the son of Cooper's good friend Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala.  Cooper realizes that the crime is too neat and investigates on his own.

The mystery weaves together slowly, taking several unpredictable turns, complicated at every step by the inescapable racial politics.  Malla Nunn's hero might be impossibly progressive, but he does have his dark side, and as the case gets more personal it brings out his violence.  I thought PRESENT DARKNESS hammered a bit too hard on Cooper's concern about his secret family being discovered, but I did like how the theme of family was woven through the climax.

This series is good because Nunn's plotting is tight and twisted, the sense of place not a gimmick but an integral part of each mystery.  It is also good because Nunn's writing is so good.  Nunn got her start in screenwriting, and she has a real sense for laying out cinematic landscapes.  You can practically see the geography rolling out before you.  A new book in a favorite series is always cause for celebration, and PRESENT DARKNESS didn't let me down.  I know I'll be back for book five.


  1. I love historical fiction and this is a subject I don't often read about, the mystery aspect sounds really well done, too!

    Mands @ The Bookish Manicurist

    1. It really is. It's just a fascinating series, and way too unknown for how good it is.


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