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Book review: <i>A Commonplace Killing</i> by Sian Busby

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the cover of the book

In a post-war England that is bleak and crime ridden, murder is par for the course. Can Detective Inspector Cooper solve this commonplace killing, this murder of one woman amongst many?

The story

DI Jim Cooper is tired and hungry, and has been since 1939. He fought in the first world war and policed the second at home, and though the war is over the poverty and lawlessness of a world at war has spilled into peacetime. When some kids find a body in a bombed out block one summer's morning, it looks like one of the many murders; the straightforward, never to be solved, random killing of a prostitute.

DI Cooper sets about investigating, even though his talents are more suited to blackmarket coupon and food trading than murder. Murder requires a certain instinct he feels he lacks. He does everything he can, assisted by the loyal Detective Lucas and his driver, Policewoman Tring.

He soon realises this wasn't the commonplace killing of a prostitute. The victim is well dressed, strangled, and wasn't raped. But why has nobody reported her missing, and more importantly, who wanted her dead?

DI Cooper struggles against investigative obstacles that seem insurmountable, and his growing attraction to policewoman Tring. The further he delves into the case the more difficult it becomes. Can he solve this anything but commonplace killing?

The style

From the word go, the setting of A Commonplace Killing is impeccable. It has such a lovely forties feel to it, from the dismal post war London vibe of hunger and queuing for food and buying necessities on the black market, to the way the characters talk and think and respond to circumstance. The story is written in two sets of third person limited, and DI Cooper's thoughts about murder and the constant craving for sandwiches have sad resignation to them, a post war sweetness and longing for a bygone era. DI Cooper is a man who has seen a lot of bad human nature, and he's a reflective and sad character with a tortured self-awareness and the desire to be loved, not lonely.

The other protagonist, unhappily married Lillian Frobisher, is a lady with nerves. She wishes her husband had never come home from the front, she wishes she hadn't taken in a boarder who pays no board, she wishes she didn't have to look after her mother. Her thought processes are petty and cruel, but thanks to starkly honest, throw-no-punches writing, the reader still feels empathy for Lillian as a character. The writing of the female characters in general rates a mention, as DI Cooper is the main protagonist with whom we empathise and his stripped back honesty is what we love about him the most. His thoughts about women, particularly Policewoman Tring, who is driving him around, are particularly dated, but well dated within the time period and used deliberately a statement of how women were viewed. I also appreciated the use of the word “jolly”, as a descriptive from or of women, multiple times.

The peripheral characters are nicely written, with an honesty about each personality which shows their flaws but also ultimately their humanity. The storyline builds suspense using staggered timelining in the writing, and also DI Cooper's desperation. It's crime fiction, and it's well done. Not too far out, not too weird, just, as the title suggests, a commonplace killing. And in a world of reading where weird sex fetish serial killers are all the rage, it makes a nice change.

Who is this book for?

It's British crime, but it's set in the past, so the technology and interactions between criminals, police officers, men, and women are all distinctly different. It's also an easy read, and pretty short. For lovers of British crime fiction for sure.

If you like this book, you would also like...

It has the same humour as Dalziel and Pascoe, so that would be a good move from here.

In short

Title: A Commonplace Killing
Author: Sian Busby
Publisher: Marble Arch Press
ISBN: 978-1-4767-3029-5
Year published: 2013
Pages: 272
Genre(s): Crime fiction
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