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on 7 May 2013
Sian Busby's final book is a tremendous achievement both as a novel and as an example of what an indomitable spirit can achieve. First, the book itself: it's a very good read, with a strong narrative and a stronger sense of place and time: north London, as tatty and battered as its inhabitants immediately after the end of the war. The body of a woman is found on wasteland, the police investigating wearily assume it's a sexual assault that went wrong. But it turns out not to be the case, so who is the dead woman? A prostitute? If not, how did a "respectable" woman end up strangled?

Busby's characters are a bit squalid, like their physical surroundings; morally compromised (petty criminals, fences, spivs, sleeping with people they shouldn't) but one of Busby's hallmarks as a writer is her empathy with, understanding of and compassion for people and choices that many would dismiss with a judgmental word or two. And so you find yourself caring about the war-traumatised thief, about the diminished husband, about the hard-edged victim, about her brittle, feckless lodger, about the weary police officer who can't do a good enough job.

As well as standing as an achievement in its own right as wonderfully conceived and executed book, A Commonplace Killing is also an extraordinary achievement for Busby, who was dying of cancer as it was being completed. When she died in September 2012, her husband, BBC business editor Robert Peston, found the final part of the book handwritten in her notebook; he transcribed the final pages so that the book could be published posthumously. As he explains in the foreword to the novel, "I did not know, until reading handwriting as familiar as my own and hearing her voice in my head, that she had finished this exquisite work."

Where Peston's transcription takes over is noted in the book; I'm not sure that a reader would otherwise spot the join. Perhaps the final few pages are a little more sparse than the prose that precedes it, but that sparseness is appropriate to the bleakness of the end of the book. The love with which the book was completed gives A Commonplace Killing a redemptive and emotional power that the narrative itself deliberately doesn't provide: there's little redemptive about the narrative that unfolds.

Any book is a labour of love. This one, which stands on its own two feet as a very good novel by any standards, is doubly so, given the circumstances in which it was written and the circumstances in which it was finished. I'd recommend it without the coda of its completion; the achievement that it represents makes it outstanding.
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In post-war Holloway, north London in 1946, two boys discover the body of a woman on a bomb site. The immediate response from the police is that it is a sex-related murder "a commonplace killing", a remark tossed in by a detective in a casual, dismissive way. The site was a haunt for courting couples. Detective Inspector Jim Cooper may be disgruntled at the post-war crime boom and his own shabby, lonely life but he is street-wise. He has a pragmatic view of lawbreakers - they do it because they can - and is determined to find the culprit who strangled Lillian Frobisher along with the motive, sensing it is someone in the locality.

Lillian's husband, Walter, has returned home from war to a bomb-damaged house, a wife who no longer loves him, a frail incontinent mother-in-law and a lodger who does not pay her rent. His prospects are not bright. Lillian is desperate to escape this scenario. She even misses the odd fling that she had during the war. Now her domestic life is depressing; rationing , shortages, queuing ,the black market are everyday events. The story leading to Lillian's murder is set against the bleak and authentic atmosphere of a run down crime-ridden area filled with vivid imagery of a ruined area. Sian Busby's narrative utilises the dialect of the times portraying in graphic detail the features of the location 'heavy with loneliness, shadowy with the ruin of lives and homes'. She draws her characters in a way they can readily be identified with by the reader.

Sian Busby has written an impressive authoritative novel of authenticity. It is melancholic, atmospheric and heart-rending. The circumstances surrounding the publication of this book are well-known and add to the sense of loss and poignancy.
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on 15 January 2014
It's been a long time since I sat up half the night to finish a book, but I did with this one. Not only does it leave you guessing about the perpetrator until almost the end, it brings the taste and feel of what it must have been like to live in post-war Britain. Good storyline, brilliant descriptive writing. Would definitely recommend.
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on 18 January 2015
I am full of admiration for this author who wrote this novel under very difficult circumstances. She was at the time suffering from the effects of lethal lung cancer and sadly passed away before its publication. However, her husband, Robert Peston (the BBC journalist and Economics Editor) found her hand-written manuscript for the end of A Commonplace Killing and transcribed it so that the book could be completed posthumously.

In the opening chapter we are made aware that the setting is London. It is the summer of 1946. A woman's body has been found by some children playing on a disused bomb site and DDI Jim Cooper is tasked with leading the investigation.

It took me a while to get used to the style and pacing of this novel. However, once I'd worked my way through the first few chapters, I got into the flow of this crime drama. Although I am far too young to have been around at that particular period, I did, nevertheless, feel I had been given a realistic insight into the lives of the working-class folk who had to survive and make ends meet during those rather bleak economic times. Also, I thought the writer effectively moved the story back and forth between different time-frames in order to slowly peel away the events leading up to the tragic death of the murdered woman.

This rather gloomy tale was well written but could have done with a injection of humour for my liking. All in all though, this was a satisfying read and made a welcome change to the kind of crime novels I am usually drawn to.
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on 18 July 2015
It's a dangerous business, calling your book 'A Commonplace Killing'. It may seem like a clever title, reflecting the squalid ordinariness of the murder and the jaded and cyclical response to it by the police. However, it also echoes the fact that it might be just a little bit dull to a reader who has, for better or worse, read about (or watched on TV) more sex-related murders than any post-war 'copper' would come across in a career.

This is a book that prioritises atmosphere over plot at every turn. It is well written (with, if one is to be critical, occasional moments of pretension) and the sense of time and place is beautifully created. However, it doesn't matter how well Busby depicts a world of spins and shortages, as well as the confusion and dismay of a London where a war has been win but life has got no better, if what happens within that world is tawdry and under-whelming. A woman is killed and her body left on a bomb site. we find out how this came to pass, but the main point of this book seems to be that this sort of thing is, unfortunately, commonplace. It certainly is in literature, with the result that the reader is entitled to expect a little bit more.
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on 18 December 2013
Sian Busby here tells the story of murder, but comes at it from different points of view, which converge towards the end. Her evocation of the desolation and grimness of post-war London is immaculate. Her gift here is that it is done that effortlessly. No jolly cockneys all pulling together - this I suspect - is nearer the truth. The principal characters are human and believable, and her meticulous research drops in little nuggets here and there which establish it firmly in reality. The threepenny bits used for suspenders definitely rang a bell, for example.

And yet it is not depressing - merely fascinating. The story unfolds cleverly from the point of view of the blonde Lillian and her sad home life and the policeman, as they tend to be, a little bit battered and worn down by life, but dogged and honest, and disarmingly crossed in love and full of impossible yearning.

It ticks a lot of boxes without trying, and I enjoyed it very much.

Sian Busby is a great loss, not only to fiction but movingly to Robert Peston, who finished her final transcription as a gesture of love and benediction. A brave and gifted lady.
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on 18 October 2015
I liked the setting, just after the war – you can get a sense of how it must have been difficult to comes to terms with all of the changes, but still with many of the restrictions due to rationing etc. The mental effects from the war are quite well illustrated. I liked the interaction between the main detective, and his young driving assistant. I rarely like joint timelines, so have to say I would have preferred the novel to have a slightly different style. I did quite enjoy reading this book, but it was quite slow.
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on 9 April 2016
Brilliant novel, extremely absorbing and atmospheric. Could not put it down. Purchased the audio version (read wonderfully) to listen to in the car and the book to pick it back up when I got home. Very disappointed that it had to end!
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on 19 November 2015
Such a well-written book. You can really identify with the main characters. I will be keeping this and re-reading as I enjoyed it so much. RIP Sian Busby, a brilliant author, such a shame she only wrote this one book, and hats off to her widow Robert Peston, for making sure her talented work was published.
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on 19 December 2014
I'd not realised the background to the books publication, discovering it after completing the novel.
Initially, I found this quite difficult to get into.
Each chapter was excellent, but somehow I struggled with the whole until around a third of the way through, and things clicked.
The story is set in the immediate post second world war era, and the descriptions proffered in the book are superb, evocative, and totally compelling. The characters too.
It's just a very good story, well constructed, and well worth reading. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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