“Regret was so closely aligned to guilt that it was often quite difficult even for the most seasoned detective to tell the difference between the two.”
It’s London, 1946. The body of a woman is found sprawled on a London bombsite. It’s a well-known slum area near Holloway prison, an area frequented by prostitutes and their johns, so when the police are called to the scene, initially the case is treated as “A Commonplace Killing“–not a particularly big deal and certainly nothing to get that excited about. But to Divisional Detective Inspector Jim Cooper, there’s something about the case that doesn’t fit the profile of a prostitute killing. The middle-aged woman appears to be the sort that takes care of herself, but then if she’s not a prostitute what is she doing in this area keeping a sordid assignation? Cooper thinks that “somebody somewhere will be missing her,” and yet no one has reported a wife or mother missing. Who is this mystery woman?
The novel’s two storylines follow Cooper as he investigates the murder in a country that is experiencing an “unprecedented crime boom” and Lillian Frobisher, a 43-year-old London housewife whose life has become a lot worse since VE Day. Cooper, who knows he’s not a “first-rate murder investigator,” understands that if the victim is not identified the chances of finding her killer shrink. While Cooper’s workload has exploded, Lillian finds post WWII London a lot less interesting and colourful than the war days which were, to her, relatively carefree. For one thing, her husband Walter has returned, and their home is now a partly bomb-damaged slum. Lillian is also the sole caretaker for her bed-ridden, demented mother, and has taken in a female lodger who doesn’t pay rent and who refuses to lift a finger. All of the casual affairs Lillian had during the war while her husband was absent have evaporated. Lillian’s war effort, as she saw it was “to do her bit for married servicemen on leave, GIs looking for a bit of fun.” Now she’s stuck with Walter and “their accumulation of weariness, regret and resentment.”
Everything about him reminded her of all that they had once been; of all that they might have been. She suppressed the urge to sweep away his shaving things lined up on the mantelpiece along with the clock and their wedding photograph, just as she suppressed the need to sweep away Walter.
The novel is set in a gloomy post WWII Britain. Rationing is still in place, rumours sprout that bread is available in a certain location, and the queues start forming hours before the beleaguered shop opens. The shortages have also created a whole new world of crime. People who would never have dreamed they’d step over into the criminal world participate, on some level or another, in the black market. Cooper argues that the current social climate of deprivation “has supplied a capital opportunity. You might say that the current crop of villains are merely supplying a demand.”
Counterfeiting, swindling, short-changing, stealing: the desperate pursuit of nylons, tea whisky, sausages and cigarettes had made criminals of everyone.
Part of the bitterness, regret and disappointment that oozes from these characters can perhaps be explained by the sheer anticlimactic post war atmosphere. The war is over. It’s been ‘won,’ and there’s nothing to look forward to in this bleak new reality. After years of deprivation, stress, fear and loss, for some, nothing seems to have improved. Walter, home from his desk-job war is lucky to get work as a hotel doorman. Many people think the food is going to “feed fat Germans” while Britons go without:
Everyone was supposed to believe now that there was a change in the air: a spirit of fairness and justice: an end to the inequities of the old pre-war world. All of that. Otherwise, everyone said, what had it all been for.
Cooper, who survived “drowning a thousand times a day in Passchendale mud,” didn’t sign up for WWII–not because he wanted to advance in his career, but simply because he couldn’t stomach another war. He’s a solid copper, hard-working, dependable, and “everybody reckoned that he was among the very best when it came to the delicate tasks of trailing spivs and extracting information from narks; that even the most determined crooks had a sneaking regard for him.”
Jim Cooper is thrown into the company of the very attractive, eager young Policewoman Tring, assigned as Cooper’s driver for the duration of the case. She is interested in “post-war psychology,” and sees the fallout of war responsible for turning the tide of human temperament:
“Thousands of men–trained killers–let loose on the world. They’ve seen terrible things; they’ve suffered and they’re scarred. And of course a good many of them are deserters.”
He loathed the pseudo-psychiatric drivel that had become part of common parlance since the war. Thanks to John Bull magazine and the Home Service, everyone was now a blasted Freudian; just the other day he’d heard some fellow on a bus talking about how the Germans had a ‘persecution complex’, whatever the dickens that was. Not uncommonly for a detective, he had no interest whatsoever in why men do bad things.
“All crooks have their reasons,” he said, “which they will give if asked and sometimes even if not asked: poverty,: drink; absent fathers; absent mothers; a bump on the head… It’s all absolute tosh to my mind.”
“But aren’t you curious, sir? Don’t you want to understand what motivates them?”
“Not really. To be curious about a thing you have to find something surprising in it, and I’m afraid that nothing surprises me anymore.”
In A Commonplace Killing, which evokes the dingy world of Patrick Hamilton–complete with the prostitutes, crooks, spivs, and fences who haunt the drab London cafés and pubs, author Siân Busby deftly shows just how much can be done with a crime novel. While who committed the crime is certainly a pressing question, ‘why‘ dominates and yet motive is also subsumed into the relevance of the times. The characters are thrown together in horrible, drab, depressing circumstances, creating a destructive crucible for those trapped in their unhappy, damaged lives, so we see people who, given other circumstances, would not have taken these particular paths. In spite of the fact that Siân Busby’s dark novel is full of opportunistic people who grab whatever straw that may possibly make their lives more tenable–criminal or not, moral or not–all of these damaged people are treated with compassion and humanity. Part of this compassion is shown through clever subtle parallels drawn between the murder victim and Divisional Detective Inspector Cooper. Just as the ageing murder victim imagines that she can still attract men young enough to be her son, Cooper is powerfully attracted to Policewoman Tring. These delusions are intended to stave off despair, loneliness and disappointment, but for these characters, there is no temporary solace in this bitter new world.
Siân Busby died in 2012 following a long illness. Although she finished the final chapters, her illness cut her time short and no doubt these abbreviated final chapters would have been fleshed out considerably. So while we know how it ends, the final chapters are not quite up to the standard of the rest of the book. The introduction written by the author’s husband includes a loving tribute to his wife.