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A COMMONPLACE KILLING
by Siān Busby
Atria/Marble Arch Press, September 2013
272 pages
$16.00
ISBN: 1476730296


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

When the body of a woman in her forties is found strangled on a rubble-strewn bombsite in North London, the police are at a disadvantage in their investigation. The time is 1946; the war is only just over; the police are undermanned; a mini-crime wave appears to be underway. Much of the crime has to do with the black market and the spivs who are engaged in supplying under-the-counter, off-the-back-of-a-van merchandise, like stockings and girdles and butter and bacon, to those willing and able to buy it. But violent crime is not uncommon. The children who first discovered this body were not all that surprised to find a corpse: "These things happened: more and more these days. Holloway was a dump, peace not yet a way of life, and the war had laid waste to everything, leaving common decencies bereft and clinging on for dear life, shrapnel-pocked, shuddering in the aftermath of the great prolonged shriek as they let go of the old certainties."

Detective Jim Cooper is certainly worn out by it all. He is a lonely man, unmarried, existing largely on cups of tea and endless cigarettes, still suffering from the aftermath of his time in the trenches in the

Great War in which he served as little more than a boy. But he retains what a number of his colleagues have lost, if they ever had it, a deep-rooted commitment to the victim. So when the body of a woman later identified as a middle-class housewife named Lillian Frobisher turns up in his district, Cooper does his best to discover and arrest the killer.

The book is well titled. This is an ordinary killing, not really a murder. What marks it as slightly unusual is the victim, who is not a prostitute, as Cooper's fellow policeman first assumes, but an ordinary middle-class woman living in circumstances made almost unendurable by the war and by post-war austerity. She'd had not so bad a time of it during the war itself, even if a bomb had taken out her front parlour, leaving behind enough of a house to still shelter her and her family. But now she is condemned to trying to feed her family on austerity rations, to take care of her senile, incontinent mother, and put up with a husband she had lost all interest in years before. No wonder she likes to get out now and then, have a few laughs with her friends, flirt a bit with any man who looks likely. All she wants is what everyone else in the book wants as well and what they seem unlikely to achieve: to go somewhere "that was not haunted by the ghosts of houses....And everything would be nice again, just like it used to be."

Several fairly recent crime novels have explored this grim bit of British social history, among them Laura Wilson's A CAPITAL CRIME and Elizabeth Wilson's WAR DAMAGE, but no one has done it better than Siān Busby. The novel is filled with small and telling details - the utterly appalling food and the lengthy queues required in order to buy it, the constant suspicion that the defeated Germans were doing a lot better than the British, the absence of normal comforts, like hot water and razor blades and stocking suspenders. Busby is especially good at conveying the desperate situation of women like Lillian, who got through the war by developing considerable independence only now to be told they were now surplus to requirements and to get back to their natural place as housewife and mother, even if the house is half-ruined, dinner at best is tinned meat and powdered Canadian cheese, and the husband is having a desperate little fling with the lodger.

Though everyone yearns for it to be the way it used to be, or more precisely, the way they imagine it used to be, those days will not return. Busby captures this desperate time in all its sordidness, leavened with a deep compassion for all of her characters, indeed for all those caught up in a miserable moment in history. A COMMONPLACE KILLING, for all its darkness and squalor, remains startlingly vivid in the memory.

The writer's husband introduces the book in a moving essay that details the circumstances in which it was written. Siān Busby was dying of cancer, and though she did live to complete the text, she did not live long enough to edit the final pages or to see it off the press. She was only 51 when she died and had come relatively late to fiction writing. We can only regret that she did not pick up her pen earlier and that she had to lay it down so soon. The killing may be commonplace, but there is absolutely nothing commonplace about this book.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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