A Commonplace Killing: A Novel

( 8 )

Overview

On a damp July morning in 1946, two schoolboys find a woman’s body in a bomb site in north London. The woman is identified as Lillian Frobisher, a wife and mother who lived in a war-damaged terrace a few streets away.

The police assume that Lil must have been the victim of a vicious sexual assault; but the autopsy finds no evidence of rape, and Divisional Detective Inspector Jim Cooper turns his attention to her private life.

How did Lil come ...

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A Commonplace Killing: A Novel

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Overview

On a damp July morning in 1946, two schoolboys find a woman’s body in a bomb site in north London. The woman is identified as Lillian Frobisher, a wife and mother who lived in a war-damaged terrace a few streets away.

The police assume that Lil must have been the victim of a vicious sexual assault; but the autopsy finds no evidence of rape, and Divisional Detective Inspector Jim Cooper turns his attention to her private life.

How did Lil come to be in the bomb site – a well-known lovers’ haunt? If she had consensual sex, why was she strangled? Why was her husband seemingly unaware that she had failed to come home on the night she was killed?

In this gripping murder story, Siân Busby gradually peels away the veneer of stoicism and respectability to reveal the dark truths at the heart of postwar austerity Britain.


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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Set in 1946 London, this superb psychological thriller from Busby (McNaughten) features Det. Insp. Jim Cooper, who “had the feeling that he had once done something worthwhile, something good, but had forgotten whatever it was.” His bleak outlook on life, and himself, is a perfect fit for the time and place as expectations that peace would bring with it a new attitude to the people of Holloway, the London enclave he’s assigned to, are not met. When some kids discover a woman’s corpse, the mess becomes his to sort out. The victim was strangled, but whether she was raped beforehand is unclear from the evidence. Cooper’s devotion to his duty doesn’t get the respect of his superiors, who would prefer that his energies be devoted to the black market rather than “a commonplace killing.” Busby, who died in 2012, does a brilliant job of depicting how the war left “common decencies bereft and clinging on for dear life.” (Sept.)
From The Critics
"An intricacy and sentimentality worthy of Dickens and a satirical eye as sharp as Thackeray's... a gripping thriller...a rich, clever, absorbing novel, a witty look at men in power, and a plot that shocks with an extraordinary twist."

"Written with verve, Sian Busby infiltrates the heart and soul of the Victorian world, which uncannily parallels our own."

"Ingenious."

The Times (UK)

"An intricacy and sentimentality worthy of Dickens and a satirical eye as sharp as Thackeray's... a gripping thriller...a rich, clever, absorbing novel, a witty look at men in power, and a plot that shocks with an extraordinary twist."
The Daily Telegraph (UK)

"Written with verve, Sian Busby infiltrates the heart and soul of the Victorian world, which uncannily parallels our own."
The Daily Mail (UK)

"Ingenious."
Booklist
“In fiction based on fact, Busby not only captures time and place but makes them key players in this fast-moving crime novel with its characters indelibly marked by war. Busby died in September 2012 at 51, just after finishing this novel. Her death is a loss to the world of writing,”
The Times (London)
“A superbly accomplished and gripping piece of post war noir…Busby's re-creation of a forgotten London—devastated and almost lawless—is extraordinarily atmospheric.”
The Sunday Times
“Brilliantly evoked... A distinctive and engaging novel.”
The Express
“Siân Busby’s final novel is a classic whodunit at its very best.”
Mail on Sunday
“A fitting monument to a writer of rare subtlety.”
The Daily Telegraph
"This is a novel to make you count your blessings, but it will also make readers rue the misfortune of losing such a talented novelist so early in her career."
The Daily Mail
“Elegant, spell-binding and unbearably sad... This deeply heartfelt crime novel brings a tear to the eye."
Richmond Times-Dispatch
“A gripping police procedural… Shocking and disturbing, it’s an eloquent example of the historical crime novel, with the emphasis as much on history as on crime.”
Historical Novel Society
"Busby knows how to convey disillusion like no other writer I’ve recently read… a brave and fascinating story."
The Times (UK)
"An intricacy and sentimentality worthy of Dickens and a satirical eye as sharp as Thackeray's... a gripping thriller...a rich, clever, absorbing novel, a witty look at men in power, and a plot that shocks with an extraordinary twist."
The Daily Telegraph (UK)
"Written with verve, Sian Busby infiltrates the heart and soul of the Victorian world, which uncannily parallels our own."
The Daily Mail (UK)
"Ingenious."
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-08-15
A murder investigation centering on post-war London brings together two very different people in Busby's last novel. Busby, who died in 2012 after a long illness, wrote her book while in the final stages of cancer. Reflecting the abject bleakness of daily life following World War II, when necessities were rationed and men newly returned from the front lines found there was no work to be had, Busby's story simultaneously follows Lillian Frobisher in the last days leading up to her murder in a bombing and the longings of a police investigator for the kind of relationship that eludes him. Divisional DI Jim Cooper is assigned to solve the killing of a woman whose body is discovered by schoolboys, but her death only serves to underscore his own loneliness. Deserted when the war broke out by the woman he loved, Cooper finds his life sad and repetitive and despairs of ever finding love again. Meanwhile, Cooper and the policewoman who has been assigned to drive him around London in connection with the case are piecing together the events leading up to Frobisher's murder one small bit at a time. When police identify her as the wife of a returned serviceman who cares for her elderly mother in a bombed-out home, they inch closer to finding out who actually killed the woman. The story of two desperately lonely individuals whose lives have become meaningless, Busby's novel is based on an actual murder that took place after the war. Set against the bleakness of a London that's short on everything and still in tatters from bombings and splintered relationships, the book captures the hopelessness and desperation of the times. Busby's husband prefaces his wife's book with a beautifully written tribute to his late wife and her talent, which makes the reading experience even more poignant. A moody gem of a novel that gives moving testament to the exemplary talent that is Busby's lasting legacy.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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."

Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications.

Reviewer: Anna Mundow

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781476730295
  • Publisher: Atria Books/Marble Arch Press
  • Publication date: 9/17/2013
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 650,539
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Siân Busby, an award-winning writer, broadcaster, and filmmaker, was married to the BBC Business Editor Robert Peston and the mother of two sons. Author of the highly acclaimed historical novel McNaughten, she died in 2012.

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Read an Excerpt

A Commonplace Killing


  • That neglected triangle where the Camden, Holloway and Caledonian Roads intersect, long oppressed by soot and the continuous rumble of the railway, its bounds set by the gloomy bulk of the women’s prison and the desolation of the empty Livestock Market, had been done for long before the Hitler War blasted every last vestige of respectability to smithereens. From the tops of buses you could see how, in other parts of town, the bomb-sites had been transformed by clumps of fireweed, willow-herb and ragwort; but in Holloway only fireplaces and doorframes, like overturned tombstones, protruded from rubble patches scattered with the broken bones of chimney pots. Within a few minutes’ walk, you might find yourself passing Pentonville on hanging day, or the Crippen murder house; but for the most part Holloway languished in obscurity: a meagre landscape of peeling stucco and thwarted ambition unrolling in street after nondescript street of villas built in more aspirant times and gradually declined into bed-sitting rooms inhabited by prostitutes, Irish navvies, coloureds, army deserters. And then came the V-weapons, almost putting the whole lot out of its misery.

Most of that particular terrace was just about clinging on; which is to say that although a good portion of it was awaiting demolition, there was at that time only one house-sized space, marked off by a piece of rusting corrugated iron that guarded access to a bare stretch of emptiness, sparing passers-by one of those startling glimpses of the horizon, so unsettling to Londoners which, since the War, had become a common hazard of going out. We had come to refer to these vacant spaces as “bomb-sites”; this one, like all the others, was utterly devoid of life, history and anything else of value, with the exception of one unremarkable London plane. This tree was now all that stood between the street and the precipitous gully of the London and North Eastern Railway, since the Jerries, in aiming for the railway, had obliterated instead a cramped row of soot-blackened houses which had overlooked the track for the best part of a century. The bomb-site was now entirely at the mercy of regular wet suffusions of acridity; and every time a train shrieked along the tracks to and from King's Cross, the shattered houses on either side of it shuddered, silently relinquishing fragments of masonry.

A gang of kiddies spotted the leg sticking out from behind the plane tree. Through the smut-laden steamy shimmer, the heat of a midsummer morning, there was a woman’s leg, stockinged and dressed in a high-heeled shoe, extending from a just-glimpsed skirt hem. The kiddies assumed it belonged to a shop-window dummy, dumped along with the pram skeleton, the chipped and overturned lavatory, the rubber johnnies and the lipstick-stained cigarette ends. They were going to throw stones at it when they realised that the leg belonged to the body of a woman. You could see nearly all of her chest. Her wide-open eyes stared past the plane tree leaves to the sky beyond. Her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth, swollen like a lump of raw liver. The blue and red stripes around her neck told at a glance how life had been wrung out of her by a pair of human hands.

Nobody–not even the kiddies–was all that surprised to find her there. 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.

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Customer Reviews

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( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 1, 2013

    The setting is North London in 1945 at the end of World War II w

    The setting is North London in 1945 at the end of World War II when some of the men were returning from combat to find their marriages in shambles. The women have had to survive while they were gone and some aren't willing to go back to the way it used to be.

    Lillian Frobisher is disillusioned and desperately seeking some sort of spark in her life. She no longer loves her husband but they live in her ailing mother's house and she won't leave. With rations, she's forced to stand in bread lines for up to several hours which only adds to her dreams of finding something better. When her body is discovered by two young boys, it is believed she was a prostitute who crossed paths with a violent customer. But when the autopsy reveals that she was strangled but not raped, the mystery grabs you---and doesn't let you go until the last page.

    The many twists left me wanting more. Unfortunate, Ms. Busby died before this novel was finished, and using her notes, her husband finished it for her. But that means no more of her stories in the future--and that's my loss.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2013

    Excellent Atmospheric Mystery

    The late Busby has created a very realistic portrait of immediate post-war England. Dreariness, fatigue, and disappointment are major problems for most of the main characters, including the resolute but jaded detective. The characters are memorable and the settings are brilliantly portrayed. How sad that Busby died much too young. This is a wonderful novel for mystery lovers interested in Britain in the 1940s.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 8, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Alluring and Captivating

    The events prior to the killing and the steps of the murder investigation are told simultaneously in author Siân Busby’s last novel, A COMMONPLACE KILLING. The late author beautifully weaves the past and the present in such a manner you don’t realize at first that the two events aren’t taking place at the same time. The story flows smoothly as it transitions keeping a steady pace. This psychological thriller is set in post-World War II London and follows the double life of a seemingly proper middle-class woman, Lillian Frobisher. When Lillian’s body is found in an abandoned churchyard, it’s assumed she was the random victim of rape. Evidence shows she was strangled, but not raped. It’s up to Divisional Detective Inspector Jim Cooper to find the person responsible for this ‘commonplace killing.’ Cooper begins to look into her private life and why her husband didn’t report her not returning home. What the DDI finds is a seedy double life the victim hid from her family and a postwar London that has none of the cheery optimism portrayed in newsreels. A COMMONPLACE KILLING is suspenseful, intriguing and spellbinding as readers are taken back in time to London and the harsh reality of life after the war. Rich in history, the author’s vivid descriptions and details places the reader in the middle of the bombed landscape, the meager lifestyles and the broken promises. The last 20 pages of the novel were transcribed from a handwritten manuscript following the author’s death. There is less intense descriptions and details in these pages, but at the same time carries the story just as well. In some ways, the stark contrast to the earlier rich embellishments makes the ending more dramatic. Busby’s characters are well-developed with sharp contrast. They are courageous, yet flawed; broken, yet not without dreams. The author gives you a good sense of the time, place and the people trying to survive. The gripping story will hold your attention as you try to uncover the truth. Busby has an alluring way of telling a story concerning a time I’ve always found difficult to read about. You might be tempted to read this story solely because the author died as she completed the work. However, I would recommend reading it solely because it is a psychological thriller that will captivate you with strong characters, rich descriptions and a well-balanced plot. FTC Full Disclosure - This book was sent to me by the publisher in hopes I would review it. However, receiving the complimentary copy did not influence my review.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2014

    9690-96700

    &#9690 &#9691 &#9692 &#9693 &#9694 &#9695 &#9696 &#9697 &#9698 &#9699 &#96700

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2013

    Not sure

    I am still reading the book so can't review at this time

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted October 21, 2013

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    Posted November 3, 2013

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    Posted September 21, 2013

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