Review: Present Darkness by Malla Nunn

Title: Present Darkness {Detective Emmanuel Cooper #4}

Author: Malla Nunn

Published: Atria/Emily Bestler Books June 2014

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read on June 07, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy Netgalley/Atria}

My Thoughts:

Present Darkness is the fourth superb instalment in Malla Nunn’s Detective Emmanuel Cooper series. This unique crime series, set during the 1950’s in apartheid ruled South Africa, has become one of my favourites, and Present Darkness is Nunn’s best yet.

It is a few days before Christmas, 1953 and Cooper is fast losing patience with his colleagues in the Johannesburg major crimes squad. While the temporary transfer from Durban allows him to see Davida and their baby daughter Rebekah every day, he is wary of his boss, Lieutenant Walter Mason who seems far to interested in what Cooper does in his off time. Called to a vicious beating of a white couple, a high school principal and a secretary at the office of land management, Cooper is surprised when their teenage daughter blames Aaron Shabalala, the youngest son of his best friend and Zulu Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala, for the brutal attack. From the first things don’t seem to add up, but Mason isn’t interested in Cooper’s doubts and insists the girls identification closes the case. Cooper, who owes Shabalala his life, can’t let it rest though and with the help of Dr. Daniel Zweigman, he begins an investigation of his own.

Cooper’s inquiry leads him from the violent slum in which he was raised to a dusty farm on the outskirts of Pretoria. He encounters thieves, corrupt cops, pimps, murderers and an abducted prostitute in his drive to prove Aaron Shabalala’s innocence. Full of twists and turns, complicated by Cooper’s need to avoid alerting Mason to his unsanctioned investigation and his desire to protect his family, the plot is fast-paced and tension filled. Cooper, as always, follows the evidence wherever it leads him, no matter the threat or danger, ably assisted by Shabalala and Zweigman.

As I’ve written before, the cultural framework of the novel is what really sets this series apart from other crime fiction I have read. Apartheid affects every facet of life for South Africans, and Nunn doesn’t shy away from exposing the appalling inequalities of the period. Having experienced life on both sides of the colour line, Cooper is more aware of the arbitrary injustice based on skin colour than most and refuses to let apartheid compromise his job or his personal life. In 1953, Cooper’s relationship with Davida, a mixed race woman, is illegal and he is conscious that she, and their daughter, is a vulnerability his enemies could easily exploit.

As with Nunn’s last book, Silent Valley (published in the US as Blessed Are the Dead), I read Present Darkness in single sitting. Skilfully crafted with an intriguing plot and superb characterisation, Malla Nunn’s Detective Emmanuel Cooper series should be on everybody’s reading list.


Available to Purchase from

Simon & Schuster US I AmazonUS I BookDepository

Available in Australia from

Xoum Books I boomerang-books_long I Booktopia I Bookworld I via Booko

Amazon AU I Amazon US



14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Helene Young
    Jun 09, 2014 @ 17:47:15

    Can’t wait to read this one, Shelleyrae. Malla Nunn’s writing is beautiful and the strong characterisation holds true through her three earlier books.

    From your review it sounds like she’s written another rich story.



  2. kathrynsinbox
    Jun 09, 2014 @ 20:43:58

    Sounds absolutely brilliant. I have yet to read any of Malla Nunn’s work, but this series sounds like something that I may enjoy.



  3. herschelian
    Jun 10, 2014 @ 02:19:06

    Wow – I was surprised to see this on your blog – as an ex-pat Saffer I never expect to see SA authors covered in book blogs. I enjoyed Malla Nunn’s earlier books enormously but stuck out here in China didn’t know about this one – thanks SO MUCH for the head’s up. Now I have a treat in store!



  4. mallanunn
    Jun 10, 2014 @ 09:37:46

    Reblogged this on Malla Nunn and commented:
    Thanks for the stellar review, Shelley. I aim to please!



  5. Teddyree
    Jun 16, 2014 @ 18:36:39

    Fab review Shelleyrae, and high praise. I’m adding the series to my must read list but you know me … I’ll be starting at the beginning 🙂



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