Written by Siân Busby — Siân Busby tragically passed away in 2012, but she gave us two non-fiction works (A Wonderful Little Girl and The Cruel Mother), a children’s book, and two works of fiction entitled McNaughten and A Commonplace Killing. The latter she finished shortly before she died. It’s 1946 and a woman’s body has been found by a group of children at a London bomb site, strangled, laid out on a mackintosh of rather good quality. When Detective Jim Cooper catches the case, he assumes the attack included rape, but the autopsy shows that while sexual intercourse did take place, there were no signs of assault. It takes a while to identify the body, but when they do it turns out that the woman was Lillian Frobisher, wife and mother of a grown son. Why was Lillian at a deserted bomb site with someone most decidedly not her husband, and what would compel someone to kill her?
The narrative alternates between Cooper’s investigation, the killer’s viewpoint, and Lillian’s life with her husband, Walter. It takes in her mother, whom she looked after, her son Douglas, and also a young woman called Evelyn who boards with the family. What’s most striking about this book are the passages about Lillian’s life. Her husband Walter came back from World War II a changed man – to Lillian, he became a weak man. She even states that she sometimes wishes he hadn’t come back. She resents having to take care of her mother, and indeed tries to push much of the responsibility onto young Evelyn, who hasn’t contributed much in the way of rent, and who Lillian sees as unintelligent and unable to fend for herself.
The entire portrait that we get of Lillian is one of entitlement and regret, although I sensed that the entitlement came more from her wish to elevate herself above her circumstances, as opposed to a real sense of self-importance. She feels as if her family, and even Evelyn, would not be able to get along if it weren’t for her ministrations. As was the way of many women whose husbands went to war, while Walter was gone Lillian enjoyed the company of other men. She imagined herself as something more, even if it was only for a moment, and afterwards missed the attention. It’s this that led Lillian to seek out the affections of one young man in particular, and this led her to her death.
You’ll realise who the killer is almost immediately when you read A Commonplace Killing, but that’s besides the point. Jim Cooper is a capable detective, and his sense of world weariness will be familiar. However, what sets Cooper apart is the setting in which he must work – it’s austere, post war London – and his own past failings. He misses his former lover and becomes besotted with his driver, and soon partner, Policewoman Tring, who aspires to be an investigator one day herself. He is disillusioned by the hope that has bloomed since the War ended, feeling that it’s only a matter of time until the next one, and there’s the sense that he feels like just another cog in the works, moving inexorably toward the next crime.
Most crime novels want the reader to root for the killer’s capture above all else – to see the bad guy (or girl) get their comeuppance. A Commonplace Killer takes a different and multifaceted look into the psyche of a killer who can’t be placed squarely into one category. It’s a fine work of post war London noir, and also an effective commentary on the nature of evil, and our capacity for compassion.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars