This reading group guide for Let the Dead Lie includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Malla Nunn. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
1. Early in the novel, we learn that Emmanuel Cooper did not know his father, thus complicating the issue of his race. How does this affect Emmanuel throughout the story? Discuss what it would mean to be reclassified from a privileged group to a racial minority.
2. In the novel, lower classes are associated with violence and crime, and subsequently distinguished as “nonwhite.” Is this indicative of the time and place? Does the depiction of race in the novel resonate with current issues?
3. In chapter 4, Emmanuel can tell by Parthiv’s body language that he is lying to him. When else does Emmanuel realize he has been lied to and how does this affect his actions?
4. It could be argued that the Flying Dutchman is the least corrupt character Emmanuel comes across during his investigation. Would you agree with this? Who do you feel is the most corrupt?
5. What would happen if the United States issued a law where race or religious affiliation had to be placed on your identification card? Would it be allowed? What would you do?
6. In chapter 12, Miss Morgensen talks of feeling judged by Brother Jonah, even though he is physically not there. The author mentions the Christian belief of God seeing and judging all. Do other characters share this same belief? Are other religious beliefs expressed? If so, do they sway the choices the characters make?
7. Dr. Zwiegman and Shabalala put themselves in danger when they agree to help Emmanuel. Why do they do so? What are some of the other underlying themes of loyalty and trust among the various characters in the story? Of betrayal?
8. Discuss the author’s decision to frame the book with the story of Emmanuel in Paris. What do you learn about loss? About Emmanuel?
9. The Dutta brothers play a significant role in the plot. Why does Emmanuel feel an obligation to protect Amal?
10. Lana explains to Emmanuel that she is waiting, saving up money, until she can leave Major van Niekerk and start anew. How do you believe Lana justifies her relationship with the major? How does Emmanuel’s opinion of Lana alter throughout the story and why?
11. Emmanuel shows few signs of weakness. The only glimpse into his psyche or hint of doubt is evidenced through the phantom staff sergeant. How does the phantom staff sergeant motivate Emmanuel’s choices and propel the story?
12. Have you also read A Beautiful Place to Die, the first book in the Detective Emmanuel Cooper series? If so, how does Let the Dead Lie compare? In what ways have Emmanuel and the other recurring characters changed over the course of the two novels?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research a film that is set in South Africa and watch it with your book club. Discuss your reactions to the various cultural images, including scenery, cultural motifs and music. Suggestions include Invictus (2009), Catch a Fire (2006), Cry, the Beloved Country (1995), A Dry White Season (1989) and Goodbye Bafana (2007).
2. Find a recipe for South African bobotie to your liking, such as the one here, www.cookstr.com/recipes/south-african-bobotie, or another traditional dish, to make and enjoy at your book club discussion.
3. Apartheid was the system of racial separation that existed in South Africa until 1993, when Nelson Mandela was elected president. Learn more for discussion at www.apartheidmuseum.org.
A Conversation with Malla Nunn
Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
Family stories about “the old days” are a great inspiration and an amazing historical source from which to draw characters and events. Add photography books, novels, news stories and a vivid imagination, and that about sums it up!
What gave you the idea to write this particular story?
Both my parents lived in Durban in their youth, and I heard a lot of stories about that time and place. That gave me the setting. The actual story spun off a very clear mental image of a young boy lying in the dirt of a freight yard. Like Emmanuel, I just followed my nose and found out what happened to the boy and why.
What is the writing process like for you? Do you generally know the plot of the novel before you write it or does it unfold as you go along?
I’d love to know the plot from beginning to end before I start! I generally write down fragments of the story as they come to me and then stitch it all together at various points. I do have a strong sense of specific events and conversations between characters before starting, and these mental scenes guide me into the world of the book. The word “organic” best describes my writing process.
Are any of your characters based on anyone in particular? Are there autobiographical elements to your work?
I draw bits and pieces from the people around me and from myself. I don’t believe that anything is entirely made up . . . it’s just rediscovered. For example, Emmanuel is an ex-soldier because many of my male ancestors were soldiers, and I remember meeting a few of the old men who’d lived through WWI and WWII. The novel is set near the harbor because my father was in the Merchant Marine and sailed out of Durban. I’m basically a story thief! I steal shamelessly from my parents, my relatives and my own childhood.
Lana mentions that she wants to move to another place when she has enough money, where no one knows her and she can start over. Is this a desire you have ever experienced yourself? Do you think it is human nature to want to find anonymity and start anew?
The desire to start again is an essential part of human nature. It’s important to be able to see a new future for yourself, your family and, in some cases, your country. My own personal history is very much driven by a desire to start fresh. My parents moved from Swaziland in southern Africa to Australia because they wanted to leave the past behind . . . to bury it forever. They didn’t want us branded by our race and told where to live, whom to marry and what job to hold. My parents’ choice changed our lives for the better. I’m a great believer in new beginnings. I live in Sydney but dream of a living on a small farm with chickens and a vegetable patch and a huge, open sky . . . or maybe an apartment in New York? It’s great to dream.
How were you able to write the character of Emmanuel from such a gritty, masculine point of view? Do you prefer writing male or female characters?
I had to work to refine Emmanuel’s masculine voice, but getting to know Emmanuel has been a real pleasure. I love spending time with him. Emmanuel is much less of a “talker” than I am, so I have to really listen to him and try not to put words in his mouth. If that fails, my husband, Mark, is always on hand to alert me to “girly” moments in Emmanuel’s dialogue and his actions!
I don’t have a preference for writing male or female characters, because I wrestle equally with the development of both. I like strong, believable characters, no matter their race, sex or age.
You paint a multicultural picture of South Africa, drawing on various cultures including Indian, Afrikaner, Zulu, Russian, Jewish and Greek, to name just a few. Was it important for you to involve many different cultures in your story? Can you talk about the different communities and how you decided to include them in the plot?
The community I was born into was pretty mixed. We were even labeled “mixed race.” Because we were always the “in-between” people and because my family lived in the independent Kingdom of Swaziland, my relatives were drawn from different “tribes.” There was nothing cool or hip about belonging to a mixed community back then because we were always overshadowed by the belief that race mixing was somewhat shameful and dirty. My multicultural South Africa is a simple attempt to reclaim history. South Africa wasn’t just black or white: it was Indian and Italian and English and Zulu and Xhosa . . . to name a few.
Every one of the cultures included in my book was real and present in South Africa in the 1950s. Indians were (and still are) a huge part of life in Durban. They were brought out to work in the sugarcane fields of Natal by the British and many stayed on. Their influence on the culture has been immense. The British, the Zulus and the Afrikaners all shed blood in the fight for control of South Africa. These three “tribes” helped shape South Africa . . . for better and for worse.
Also, Durban is a port town. People come in and out on the tide. I used that fact to really mix things up a bit.
How were you able to understand the underbelly of the gangster and criminal world? Was this something you learned through experience, research or imagination?
I drew inspiration from old black-and-white photographs published in Drum magazine in the 1950s. The photos are gritty and urban and full of life. My father also told me stories about growing up in Durban that contradicted the sunny tourist postcard images. He knew Afrikaner boys who smoked weed and drank beer in darkened playgrounds . . . in the early 1940s. My mother talked about avoiding the botanic gardens at night because of the bad things that happened there. I just loved the contradiction between the rosy historical pictures and the underbelly of the city. Research and imagination did the rest.
You were born in South Africa. Did your own heritage factor into your desire to write a novel set in South Africa?
I was born in Swaziland in southern Africa, but the cultural and economic shadow of white South Africa loomed large in my childhood and shaped my parents’ lives. We left southern Africa behind, but I still have the most vivid memories of my grandmother’s farm after the rain and of white-robed baptism services held in outdoor pools, of funerals and weddings and the dusty playing fields of the boarding school. I grew up in a very tight-knit community, and the place and the people have never left me. I write about South Africa because it is literally “in my blood.”
Emmanuel was given a “second chance” by the major. Have you ever been given such a second chance at something?
Absolutely. Three years ago I was a stay-at-home mom who worked part-time selling wine over the phone. I wanted to be a writer but felt I’d missed my chance. Today, I’m living a totally new life thanks to the fact that my husband, Mark, gave me the space and the time to write. My friends and family believed in me without seeing a word I’d written. Their support gave me the courage to take a second chance after years of stumbling.