A Commonplace Killing by Siân Busby

Siân Busby died last year, and she left an extraordinary book behind her. A book that brings a time, a place, a community to life; a book that pulls the reader back there to see and understand what is happening, and why it is happening.

17164631The war ended in 1945, and Britain celebrated. But after the Victory speeches, after the street parties, after the reunions life had to go on. There were painful consequences as life went on.

Many men came home to find wives who had thought that they would never return. Wives had been unfaithful, wives who had changed as they had to work, as they had to cope with the consequences of war on the home front. Many women lost their jobs, lost their independence, when they had to give way to men who had come home. They still had to cope with rationing and shortage. They still had to live among bomb sites, in temporary accommodation, in houses with bomb damage.

Britain had changed, and in 1946 there were consequences.

In north London, two school-boys found a woman’s body on a bomb site. At first police thought that they were dealing with another sex crime, but they came to realise that they were dealing with something rather different.

Lily felt that she was doing everything, holding her family together. She kept house, she looked after her frail mother, she queued and queued for what little food there was. Her husband bored her; her lodger, who hadn’t given her any rent since she lost her job, infuriated her, but she didn’t have the heart to turn her out. She took a pride in her appearance, in her few nice things, her occasional nights out.

An ordinary, unremarkable woman. Whose life ended when she was strangled on a bomb site.

I couldn’t say that I liked her, but I accepted that she was what she was, that she was what life had made her. A real fallible woman, made of flesh and blood, with hopes, dreams, desires …

I did like the man who lead the enquiry into the circumstances of her death. DDI Jim Cooper was a veteran of World War I, and one of oh so many who thought he had fought in the war to end all wars. he hadn’t, and he had observed and understood the consequences of the next war as he did his job on the home front.  His instinct told him that he would find the explanation for Lily’s death close to  her home.

The pictures that Sian Busby paints of Lily’s world and of the investigation of her death are clear, vivid, rich in detail, and utterly, utterly real. The people, the places, the times, lived and breathed, and I had such confidence in the author. It was so clear that she had studied, that she had cared, and most of all that she had understood.

The story that emerged was psychologically perfect; the consequence of characters and their circumstances. And though it was natural, the final revelations still hit me hard.

It isn’t a comfortable story, but it is compelling, illuminating, and horribly believable.

A rare instance too of murder mystery, social history and literary fiction working together, quite beautifully.

4 responses

  1. Have you read A Small Death in the Great Glen? It also combines, in your words, “murder mystery, social history and literary fiction” and is set in post-WWII Britain, although in this case the mid 1950s and Scotland, not England.

    Anyway, I want to give this a go, especially considering how much I connected with A Small Death.

  2. This book sounds a must for me – it goes onto the wishlist. However first I should read McNaughten by her which is in my TBR.

  3. Last week I was listening to…ummm, Richard Bacon’s podcast I think it was, and Busby’s husband was being interviewed about her book. My heart was breaking for him but I was also very excited about the novel, it’s been placed on my wishlist. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it, I’m even more keen now!

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