My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Present Darkness is Malla Nunn’s fourth entry in the Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper series and is an excellent continuation of the series.
It’s the 1950’s in South Africa and Apartheid has taken its vicious hold. Detective Sergeant Cooper has managed a temporary transfer from Durban to Johannesburg for personal reasons. The price he must pay is reporting to the angry, religiously fanatic Lieutenant Mason who applies the Apartheid rules with a vengeance.
Cooper is called to assist in the investigation of the savage beating of a well-to-do white couple. The couple’s teenage daughter identifies Aaron Shabalala as their attacker. Aaron is the son of black Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala, Cooper’s friend, and a man who has once saved his life.
Cooper’s superiors are satisfied that they have the guilty party and break off any further investigation. However, Cooper believes the evidence doesn’t support the daughter’s story. He’s determined to uncover the facts and free his friend’s son, even though the young man won’t speak up for himself. Cooper, Shabalala and their friend, Dr. Daniel Zwiegman set out to discover the truth and their search takes them into the underbelly of Johannesburg and the worst it has to offer: drugs, gangs, prostitution and abject poverty.
Malla Nunn’s previous Cooper books were stark portrayals of the darkness of Apartheid and its dehumanizing effects. In Present Darkness she succeeds again in wringing drama from that terrible scourge.
Money and power allow some to flout the laws, while applying them with a heavy hand when they choose. To combat these people, Cooper and his friends must occasionally go outside those same laws, and rely on unsavory types to gain an advantage or discover information. Nunn does an outstanding job illustrating how Cooper and his friends serve justice by delving into these areas and living with the consequences of their actions.
Nunn writes with a sure hand. Her portrayal of Apartheid, the insidious way it turned people against one another, and the manner in which some found kindness in spite of it is entirely authentic. Her characters are multi-dimensional and complex, and even angry Mason reveals some humanity. Present Darkness flows smoothly with plenty of drama and culminates in a satisfying climax. It should leave Nunn’s fans watching excitedly for the next Cooper novel.
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