A Commonplace Killing

Postwar Britain, as evoked in Siân Busby’s A Commonplace Killing, is a victorious country but a defeated place. “War blasted every last vestige of respectability to smithereens,” Busby writes of London in 1946. “In Holloway only fireplaces and doorframes, like overturned tombstones, protruded from rubble patches scattered with the broken bones of chimney pots.” Not that this neighborhood,  “…its bounds set by the gloomy bulk of the women’s prison and the desolation of the empty Livestock Market,” was ever pretty. But in Busby’s stark portrait Holloway is stripped naked, and its domestic life too has been disfigured. “There’s hardly a woman in London who doesn’t have a secret,” a cynical policeman observes. “Bastard kids and VD — that’s the real legacy of the war for you.”  

Lillian Frobisher, for example, is a respectable forty-three-year-old wife and mother whose sexual and romantic longings have been uncorked during her husband’s wartime absence. “It wasn’t that she had wanted him to be dead,” she muses of pathetic Walter. “It was just that she hadn’t wanted him to come back to her.” Now Lillian, Walter, their son, her invalid mother, and a dimwitted lodger keep up appearances in their dreary, bomb-damaged house. One hot July evening, however, Lillian leaves the house for the last time. We know what becomes of her — or think that we do — because Busby opens the novel with the discovery of a body on a bomb site. “Got a woman here whose been strangled, sir,” DI Frank Lucas informs his boss, DDI Jim Cooper, who dreads the false leads and dead ends that he sees ahead. “The first visit to a crime scene was a sort of fresh start,” Cooper reflects as he approaches the body, “a prelude of calm, organization and procedure, before the descent into the chaos of human entanglement.”  

These entanglements are deftly spun, then teased apart to form a plot that is both plain and sinuous. As Busby laces the narrative back and forth between Cooper’s investigation and the random events that lead to murder, alternating chapters take us inside the minds of Lillian Frobisher, of DDI Cooper, and of Dennis Belcher, seaman and petty criminal. Each life is revealed only partially, elliptically, each distorted by war and its aftermath. Meanwhile, Cooper sifts through fragments, real and imagined. At the murder scene, for example, ” ‘There would have been a handbag.’  Cooper was as sure of that as he could be of anything. The victim would have acquired the Blitz habit of keeping everything of any value or importance in her handbag….”  A handbag, a powder compact, an engraved cigarette case. A Commonplace Killing drains such details of their nostalgic potency, and what remains is acrid. In a formerly cheerful café, for example, “One bare light bulb hung from the center of the ceiling alongside a strip of fly paper, and the whole place was suffused with post-war staleness: rot, accumulated grime, softened by intermittent bursts of steam emitting from a vast urn that was set upon the counter.” So much for victory. “War changed nothing,” observes Cooper, who fought in the first one. “It didn’t last time and it won’t this time.” And a young man about to be hanged concedes, “If they say I did…then I suppose I must have done.”