Plenty Under the Counter (1943) by Kathleen Hewitt

Today’s review is for one of the reprints that the Imperial War Museum launched earlier this year, from their new series which is designed to bring back from obscurity novels from and set in WW2. Kathleen Hewitt was a new author to me, yet it certainly seems like she was a woman that did. Her adventurous life began when she ‘left home at 18 with only £1 and 5 pennies to her name.’ She was ‘determined to win an independent livelihood as an artist,’ though later she ‘lived on a farm for several years’ in South Africa. Following her return to England she went and ‘opened a hat shop in Reading.’ Not all of her novels were mysteries or thrillers, but between 1932 and 1955, according to the bibliography on the Classic Crime Fiction website, she wrote 21 mysteries/thrillers with a variety of publishers.

Flight Lieutenant David Heron is the protagonist and amateur sleuth of the story. He has been in hospital for a few months, having been injured when he had to bail out of his aircraft during a mission. He is finally well enough to leave hospital and has a week of leave before going back to his war work, which he plans to spend at his old boarding house run by Mrs Meake. Yet it seems like he will have little in the way of rest or convalescence…

David gets the news that a dead body has been found at the bottom of the garden delivered with his morning tea. The man had been stabbed in the back, quite literally. Understandably the police are very interested in the household and their investigation is headed up by Detective Inspector Gracewell. Initially David is unable to imagine anyone in the house having any connection to the victim, but of course this illusion is soon dismantled. Within hours of the murder being discovered one tenant has already left, a woman with a dubious past, as at her previous place of work there had been a suspicious death as well. There is a bank clerk desperate to secure the loan of £100 and the most suspicious character of them all is the landlady’s tearaway daughter Thelma, who is never up to any good and who is soon found to be lacking in an alibi for the night in question. Chance encounters and well asked questions soon reveal to David, who is resolute in solving the case before his leave is up, that much more than murder has been going on, with a trail leading to a black-market racketeering ring. But has he bitten off more than he can chew?

Overall Thoughts

The Blitz is the backdrop for this piece and the introduction written by Alan Jeffreys makes the point that during this period civilians were now on the front line of the War and that war is a catalyst for bringing out the best and worst in human nature. Whilst both sides are seen in this story it is the latter trait which fuels the plot of this book and Jeffreys goes on to write that the book ‘challenges the stereotype of the ‘Blitz spirit,’ showing the violence and prevalence of the black market…’

Consequently, the War is very much at the forefront of this text and is fused with the everyday lives of the characters. One such area of life is attitudes towards death; particularly sudden death and it is fair to say there is a level of desensitisation. Sometimes this can contain notes of dark humour such as when Mrs Meakes is complaining about having to go and look at the dead body to see if she could identify it:

‘They asked me if I’d mind and of course I minded, no one wants to look at a dead face at eight o’clock in the morning, it’s not what you’d choose for entertainment.’

Furthermore, the way David describes the crime to various people negates the sensational and the man’s death is almost regarded as mundane at points: ‘I’d have liked snow on the ground, and melting traces of queer-shaped boots, and a scream in the night, and someone fainting at seeing the Inspector.’ Amateur sleuthing is usually linked to light hearted mysteries of the 1930s, (though of course there were some exceptions), but I don’t think readers will get the same vibe from this text. Murder is not a game to be solved. Yet I wouldn’t say the novel is terribly depressing or maudlin. Hewitt charts more of a middle ground eschewing simultaneously the extremes of ebullience and solemnity.

I found the opening chapters especially showed a writing style which makes you want to savour every line and I particularly liked how the author uses the War in her imagery. For instance, the following is said of a character named Bob Carter:

‘The Social Mirror had expired, he had written a book on working conditions in factories- a subject on which he was surprisingly well informed – and the typescript of it was destroyed in an air raid. It was the best part of a year’s work and the disaster depressed Bob for quite twenty-four hours – a record for normally he had the buoyancy of a barrage balloon.’

Hewitt doesn’t write a sparse puzzle mystery, as David’s investigation bleeds into and is influenced by his everyday life, weaving into his activities with his friends and girlfriend. Following the threads of potential clues does at times cause a degree of chaos as other commitments try to jostle for attention, such as a larger than life friend trying to set up a club for servicemen and another character who is in a pickle after helping a lady in distress. All of these intersections though, lead towards the solution and another positive of this structuring of the text is that the reader is able to encounter a wide variety of characters from all walks of life.

I think my only niggle with this book is that the final third of the book needs a little pruning, as the text loses some steam heading up to the denouement. In this section ordinary life overtakes the mystery plot a bit. However, this book has a lot to offer, especially a murder mystery which is intermixed with other crimes and war activities. It also, of course, provides a vivid snapshot of wartime London.

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Actor/Actress

5 comments

  1. I think you were not the only one to whom Kathleen Hewitt was a new name. Martin Edwards had never heard about her or her book and even more shockingly, neither had I, the web’s highest authority on obscure crime writers! 😉

    I bought it and planned to read it someday (I don’t choose books, etc) but your review has me moving it closer to the top of my ever-growing TBR pile.

    P.S.: Did you receive your copy of Stone Dead?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this one recently and quite enjoyed the gusto with which it was written, though I felt its chief weakness was that we were never really made to care whodunit. The Bob Carter subplot was pretty much padding and little else, but the main protagonist came across well and his affair with Tess was done nicely, I thought. Actually, what surprised me most about the book, considering when and where it was written, was its high spirits. My copy was a publisher’s proof and lacked the Alan Jeffreys introduction, but to me the Blitz Spirit came across pretty well. It certainly put to shame the way people constantly complain about the times we live in now & how ‘difficult’ and ‘dangerous’ they are, etc., etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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