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About The Book

Set in the corrupt, unforgiving world of apartheid South Africa, this novel in the Detective Emmanuel Cooper series follows Cooper as he faces a test of loyalty and friendship.

Five days before Christmas, Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper sits at his desk at the Johannesburg major crimes squad, ready for his holiday in Mozambique. A call comes in: a respectable white couple has been assaulted and left for dead in their bedroom. The couple’s teenage daughter identifies the attacker as Aaron Shabalala— the youngest son of Zulu Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala—Cooper’s best friend and a man to whom he owes his life.

The Detective Branch isn’t interested in evidence that might contradict their star witness’s story, especially so close to the holidays. Determined to ensure justice for Aaron, Cooper, Shabalala, and their trusted friend Dr. Daniel Zweigman hunt for the truth. Their investigation uncovers a violent world of Sophiatown gangs, thieves, and corrupt government officials who will do anything to keep their dark world intact.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Present Darkness includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.


From behind his desk in the Johannesburg major crimes squad, Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is counting the hours until his holiday in Mozambique. Then a call comes in: a respectable white couple has been assaulted and left for dead in their home. The couple’s teenage daughter identifies the attacker as Aaron Shabalala—the youngest son of Cooper’s best friend. Though others in the office aren’t interested in hearing evidence to the contrary, Cooper knows the boy is innocent and is determined to ensure justice for Aaron. With the help of Shabalala and their friend Dr. Daniel Zweigman, Cooper sets out to find the truth. Their investigation uncovers a violent world of Sophiatown gangs, thieves, and corrupt government officials who will do anything to keep their dark world intact.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. Race is incredibly important in the highly structured world of apartheid Johannesburg, but Emmanuel, a white kaffir, seems to almost float between the races. How does his past allow him access to the world of Sophiatown? How is his thinking shaped by his parentage and his personal history?
2. Emmanuel, a detective sergeant sworn to uphold the law, has an illegal mixed-race family and reflects on his status, thinking that “he was, in reality, already across the line that divided the dirty cops from the clean ones” (p. 31). How does this belief affect Emmanuel’s actions? How do his inner conflicts inform how he behaves throughout the book?
3. Think about the ways in which the treatment of “non-whites” is different from the treatment of Europeans in this story. Do you see similarities to our society today? Why or why not?
4. “A white man and a black man cannot be friends in this country. . . . It is written in their law books” (p. 144). In what ways do you see the laws, meant to control citizens’ actions, being constantly subverted? In what ways are they inescapable?
5. “Fix had loosened Bakwena’s tongue in minutes. Violence worked” (p. 228). Do you agree with this sentiment? In what ways does it prove to be true in this story, for both the protagonists and antagonists? Discuss an instance in which it backfires.
6. What did you make of the sections told from Alice’s point of view? Did you find them intriguing? Confusing? Discuss the function that they serve in broadening our view of life in apartheid South Africa.
7. Think about the differing landscapes that make up this book—Johannesburg versus Emmanuel’s home in Durban; the neat, ordered world of Parkview; the chaotic streets of Sophiatown; the dusty fields of Clear Water Farm. How do the different settings shape what happens there? Are we inevitably shaped by our environments?
8. Discuss the complicated role of Mason’s religion in the story. Is he sincere in his belief? How does it affect his actions? Do you believe, as Negus does, that “the rain wets the leopard’s spots but doesn’t wash them off” (p. 46)?
9. The specter of his World War II service continues to haunt Emmanuel. How is he affected by his experiences in the war through this story? How are the other characters, such as Zweigman, influenced by their war experiences?
10. What is the role of family in the story? How important is family to each character? What is each willing to sacrifice for the people they love?
11. Discuss the elements of magical realism that inhabit this otherwise realistic story—the lions, though there are no lions left at Lion’s Kill; Emmanuel’s unlikely, almost miraculous climb up the rock face. Is there meant to be a logical explanation for them? Do these mystical touches make the story more or less “real” to you?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Apartheid in South Africa ended only in 1993, when Nelson Mandela was elected president. Mandela was a beloved figure on the world stage and was mourned by world leaders when he passed away in 2013, and yet his public and private lives were not without controversy. Research the life of Nelson Mandela and discuss the impact he had on South Africa and on the world at large.
2. One of the dishes that Cooper, Shabalala, and Zweigman enjoy at Mama Sylvia’s in Sophiatown is a dish called funeral rice. Prepare this dish, or another South African dish, and enjoy together at your next meeting. You can find a funeral rice recipe here: http://www
3. Get a taste of the diverse musical styles that make up South African music. The website of Cape Town Magazine has a virtual jukebox that allows you to sample music from a variety of South African artists: -music/. Listen to the samples as a group. Can you hear resonances with the book in the music?

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Malla Nunn was born in Swaziland, South Africa, and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. She is a filmmaker with three award-winning films to her credit, as well as the author of the Emmanuel Cooper crime series, When the Ground Is Hard, and Sugar Town Queens.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (June 3, 2014)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451616996

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Raves and Reviews

“Consistently engaging.”

– Booklist


– The Sydney Morning Herald

“Historical hindsight may make readers a bit more self-congratulatory about recognizing the evils of apartheid, but it won’t help them see around the curves Nunn has plotted or rise above her insight into the enduring dilemmas of her separate-and-unequal world.”—Kirkus Reviews

“A disturbing book with a morally compelling hero.”—Booklist

“An engrossing and compelling read . . . saturated with the feel of 1950s South Africa.” —Mike Nicol, author of the Revenge trilogy

“The suspense is irresistible, and the mystery sustains itself well. This is a wonderfully effective addition to Nunn’s already masterful series of novels. A highly recommended novel.”— Historical Novel Society


– Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“This well-plottedbook is like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces fit together with a terribleprecision, and yet can be read with hope that the good guys will prevail. (Itis a series, after all.) Recommended for anyone who loves a good mystery with acomplicated, tough protagonist worth falling for."

– Historical Novel Society

“Malla Nunn’s bookshave it all: fast-paced, intricate storylines; an exotic setting in a dangerousera; a deeply flawed hero; and an Oscar-worthy cast of supporting characters.”

– Bookpage

“We're fortunate indeed that writers like Malla Nunn are here, working on books like PRESENT DARKNESS. This is crime fiction that goes into an area of human behaviour and a history that needs to be held up to the light, remembered, examined and understood.”

– Reviewing the Evidence

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