Sunday, September 15, 2013

Heartache and Sorrow, Inside and Outside the Book: Siân Busby, A COMMONPLACE KILLING

Siân Busby's second novel came out in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the summer, and is released in the United States this coming week. Clearly a murder mystery from the start, A COMMONPLACE KILLING is also a carefully crafted work in two or maybe three voices -- principally that of British investigator DDI (Divisional Detective Inspector) Jim Cooper, and that of the woman we believe almost immediately must the murder victim he's investigating: Lillian Frobisher, an unhappy wife. It's 1946, and Lil's husband is home again safely from the war -- but there's almost nothing good in his return for Lil, who's now trapped with a bitter and unpleasant spouse, a manipulative upstairs boarder, and her dying mother whose bedclothes are soiled multiple times per day. Life during the war was much easier for her, and a lot more fun.

DDI Cooper isn't living the good life, either; deprivations in England after the war affect city residents the most, and Cooper lives with nearly incessant hunger, sleeplessness, and worn-out clothing. Small wonder that he starts to fantasize in a gentle way about the lovely young assistant provided by his department -- someone who sees his exhaustion and provides tea and sandwiches and the admiration he's so starved for.

Busby, whose death from cancer in late 2012 seized the compassionate attention of much of her nation for her widower, a BBC business editor, never had the chance to complete her polishing of hte manuscript; her husband Robert Peston did his best to present the book anyway, with a somewhat sketchy finale and a long personal introduction. I would have preferred the intro material to be much shorter, but it was certainly the start of the sorrow in the softcover volume. The rest emerges in the mystery itself, which paints a nearly sympathetic portrait of Lil in her naive search for attention and release from distress, and a tender one of the aging and weary Cooper, still working extra hours in the postwar shortage of police labor.

The third voice in the book, appearing rarely, is that of the presumed murderer -- yet another victim of the war's violence.

This is not an entertaining or escapist mystery. To read it is to weep, inside or out, for the voices heard and the sorry state of England in 1946. Yet with its careful pace, steady stream of revelation, and enormous compassion, it's a memorable book and well worth reading. And as a mystery, it's well plotted and neatly twisted, despite the warning that each voice provides en route to the finale.

Those already reading Charles Todd, Jacqueline Winspear, Peter Lovesey, and even the "Regeneration" trilogy of Pat Barker will find this exploration of an island nation compelling; I expect there will be other authors who find their way to setting mysteries in the years soon after World War II. Busby has made a bold and honorable entryway for them. Shelve this with your London noir collection -- and for more on the author, try this bio on Wikipedia.

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