Silent Valley: Mystery and murder in 1950s South Africa

What is this about?: Detective Sergeant Cooper is sent to investigate the death of a Zulu girl in the Drakensberg Mountains near Durban in South Africa. But the murder leads him and Samuel Shabalala to secrets held by the people in the small town near where she was found, the farms and the Afrikaner and English families that work them.

What else is this about?: For me, it’s about remembering what South Africa was once like – the good and the bad.

Blurb

A remote town. A girl of rare and exquisite beauty. A murder that silences a whole community.

The body of a seventeen-year-old girl has been found covered in wildflowers on a hillside in the Drakensberg Mountains, near Durban. She is the daughter of a Zulu chief, destined to fetch a high bride price. Was Amahle as innocent as her family claims, or is her murder a sign that she lived a secret life?

Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is sent to investigate. He must enter the guarded worlds of a traditional Zulu clan and a white farming community to gather up the clues Amahle left behind and bring her murderer to justice. But the silence in the valley is deafening, and it seems that everyone – from the uncooperative local police officer, to the white farm boy who seems obsessed with the dead girl – has something to hide.

With no cause of death and no motive, Cooper’s investigation is blocked at each turn. Can he tough it out, or will the small-town politics that stir up his feelings about the past be more than he can bear?

In this page-turning tale of murder and mystery, Nunn entangles us in a rich and complex web of witchcraft, tribalism, taboo relationships… and plain old-fashioned greed.

Silent Valley (AKA Blessed are the Dead) is the third in the Emmanuel Cooper series, but you know how sometimes reading a series out of sync makes you feel like you’re stepping into the middle of a conversation that has been going on for ages?

That is definitely NOT how I felt starting with this series.

Malla Nunn draws a picture of Emmanuel quickly and efficiently, giving readers insight into everything relevant that came before, which shaped him – and why it comes to mind in this case. By the end of the book, I thought I had a detailed understanding of this cop, who is passing for white in a country like South Africa. He is a good cop, a man who is trying to find his way out of the darkness of the past books – I guess I felt like we’re seeing the beginning of him realising he has to move forward in his life somehow.

Emmanuel is an introspective character, a man who holds himself in check always – for he has to considering what he is doing. He has to navigate the politics of the police force in South Africa even more carefully than any other man would, and to gain the respect of his fellow officers is something he has worked hard for.

Shabalala is a cop too, a constable who is working with Cooper through previous cases and this one. He is relentlessly careful in everything he does as he is surrounded by white men would take offence if he looked at an unmarried white woman, and cannot argue if someone calls him Cooper’s boy or a kaffir for that matter even though he represents the law. But, I sometimes felt like he was keeping Cooper in check in his own way, which is a testament to how at ease these two are with each other, and how at odds with South Africa in general they are.

The death of the beautiful one

Amahle means beautiful one. She is the daughter of a chief, and when she is found murderered, Cooper is determined to bring the murderer to justice. It is through his investigation and Shabalala’s knowledge of Zulu customs and culture that readers learn of the pecking order within the chief’s family, and where Amahle belonged in it. We learn too of the pecking order (of sorts) of the Afrikaner and English farmers, and that of the sons and daughters within those families.

The case grows as Cooper and Shabalala investigate, finding more out about Amahle, before their case becomes a double murder. However, that is the least of their worries, for politics and the old boy network conspire to keep them from continuing their investigation.

There is a simmering animosity between most of the characters I listed above, all kept under wraps beneath the veneer of civility, as thin as they are. It is Cooper and Shabalala who strip these layers away to find the truth of Amahle’s murder – which surprised me because I expected a racial aspect to the murder, but I’d forgotten that everything in this book has a racial aspect, and murder is more… visceral, and in the book does not disappoint. The culmination of this case is elegant in its simplicity, but emphasises that Amahle wanted more for her life, and that jealousy and fear have no colour barriers.

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