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A tale of murder in post-war Great Britain

A Commonplace Killing is British author Siân Busby’s final book, and its final chapter the last cogent thought before she succumbed to a drawn out and piteous death in 2012.

And with her increasingly enfeebled scrawl of pen to paper, Busby has left us with one of the most intellectually gripping and stunning novels of recent times.

For fiction readers, half the interest of invented stories is the milieu in which the drama unfolds and its exhortation on the actions and thoughts of the characters. A Commonplace Killing takes place in 1946 war-torn Britain, a city of rubble, unemployment, food rationing, thriving black markets, hooliganism and skeleton law enforcement serving an impoverished and dysfunctional social and legal governance. Busby elegantly recreates this mise en scène and peoples it with characters plodding on as best they can. It’s a breathtaking depiction, thoroughly alive with decay, suspense and the slow heartbreaking drip of lost ennoblement.

Lillian Frobisher made do while her husband was off at war. She’s kept herself pulled together, her bomb-damaged home clean, mothered her teenage son. But, by degrees, her typically British veneer of stoicism and respectability erode as food lines grow and tattered hope further shreds. Walter returns from war with no prospects or ambition. Lil doesn’t wish him among the war dead, but also doesn’t want him home, always home, still the same dull Walter. It was bad enough without Walter, now it’s unbearable with him and she goes out looking for some attention, a little excitement after years of fear and impoverishment and always waiting.

Divisional Detective Inspector Jim Cooper is awakened in the early morning on his first day off in three months. He lives alone after the predictable wrecked marriage of most police detectives, has seen enough to know that life stinks, and he works and lives rough in keeping with a city whose residents compete with rats for food and shelter. Most of his time is spent chasing down petty criminals heisting trucks of foodstuffs, cigarettes and booze. The phone announces a murder of what can only be another prostitute doing what she can to wait it out for better times. A perfunctory go-see is required, a quick report to follow.

After surveying the scene of the murder and hearing the next day that this unidentified woman had been strangled but not violated, Cooper embarks on an investigation that takes him even deeper into the despair of the winners of a war against brutality, further into the workings of minds gone numb, to the crumbled doorstep of the man who has Lillian Frobisher’s precious food coupon book.

There’s nothing pretty or redeeming about A Commonplace Killing. But it is brilliantly written, flawlessly plotted and exciting because of it’s erudition. The suspense and dishevelment of life and locale are told through Busby’s schemed characters, with no presence of the author. If this book were to be dissected by a literary writing course, it would embody everything that’s unachievable.

A Commonplace Killing is a jewel.

JeffMannix.com. Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.

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