Welcome to the nbmagazine.co.uk stop on the blog tour for Plenty Under the Counter by Kathleen Hewitt!

Here’s a little info about the book:

London, 1942. Flight-Lieutenant David Heron, home on convalescent leave, awakes to the news that a murder victim has been discovered in the garden of his boarding house. With a week until his service resumes, David sets out to solve the murder. Drawn into a world of mystery and double-dealing, he soon realises that there is more to the inhabitants of the boarding house than meets the eye, and that wartime London is a place where opportunism and the black market are able to thrive. Can he solve the mystery before his return to the skies?

Inspired by Kathleen Hewitt s own experience of wartime London, this new edition of a 1943 classic includes a contextual introduction from IWM which sheds light on the fascinating true events that so influenced its author.

And about author Kathleen Hewitt:

Kathleen Hewitt (1893 1980) was a British author who wrote more than twenty novels in her lifetime, mainly in the mystery and thriller genre. During the Second World War she lived in Marylebone, and belonged to the The Olde Ham Bone, a bohemian club in Soho, as well as frequenting the Ivy, The Cafe Royal and the Pen Club. Hewitt enjoyed friendships with many literary and artistic figures of the day including Olga Lehman and the poet Roy Campbell.

And here’s Paul Burke’s review of Plenty Under the Counter:

Plenty Under the Counter is a treat, an important war novel and a decent murder mystery. A playful whodunit that tackles serious themes with a light touch and a sense of humour. The amateur detective, David Heron, just roused from his sleep, can’t help but bait the shy detective inspector investigating the dead body in the garden:

‘You were in here from – what time?’
‘Let me see. My girlfriend had to get back to her kids at ten. . .’

Naturally, inspector Gracewell is a little flummoxed. But this isn’t so much Heron making the inspector uncomfortable as Hewitt administering a mild shock to the reader. It’s not what it seems and Heron explains almost immediately but not before images of a mother out of wedlock would have crossed many a wartime mind. That’s what I mean by playful and it’s not the only example, have fun finding them for yourself. Generally the humour reflects a kind of British bravado, after all this is set not long after the battle of Britain, bombs have fallen and people have died on the home front. Heron actually quips after the murder that maybe the skies, he’s a flyer, are safer than the streets.

This is the third of the quartet of novels that the Imperial War Museum are publishing to kick off their new Wartime Classics series and I’m beginning to realise just how well chosen these books are in the way they compliment each other and offer readers an insight to differing aspects of the war. Alan Jeffreys, the serial compiler, has done a splendid job of bringing important works on WWII back to the public attention on the eightieth anniversary of the beginning of the war. These novels, and this one in particular, reveal modern concerns are actually eternal issues.

Censorship was a live issue in Britain during the war and the BBC and other news outlets worked with the government in deciding what was suitable for the general public to know. This novel is a sign that the debate on uncomfortable issues did not stifle free speech, this is the kind of book that you might think would attract the attention of the authorities. Simply because it was published in 1943 and it’s subject matter would have been highly controversial – the ‘Black Market’.

Flight Lieutenant David Heron, Distinguished Flying Cross, is coming to the end of his convalescent leave, he’ll be re-joining his squadron next week. In hospital he met Tess Carmichael through another patient and things are going pretty well with his new girl. David has lodged at Mrs Meake’s boarding house for eight years, he’s a theatrical man, this is a ‘stage’ house (Meakie trod the boards herself in her day). She’s salt of the earth, a lend you taxi money when you haven’t paid the rent type, a second mother. It’s all very cosy until . . .

‘Meakie’ brings David his morning tea and the disturbing news that the police have found a body in the back garden. It might have remained hidden but a passing constable saw a rope ladder on the wall. It’s murder as the strange knife sticking out of the unknown corpse’s back attests:

‘People I know don’t get murdered.’ [Meakie]
‘A Jerry tried to murder me when I was in my jolly little dinghy praying for a lifeboat.’ [David]
‘That was in the English Channel. This is London.’
‘Proving what? That the channel’s safer? . . .’

The doctor estimates time of death to be 3am. Meakie swears the back door and gate were both locked. David slept through it all so he can’t tell Detective Inspector Gracewell very much. Mrs Meake seems to be in a bit of a tis about it all; the maid, Annie, is thinking of confessing to get her picture in the paper, and the other residents all have their own little secrets. Thelma, Mrs Meake’s daughter, was out all night at her aunt’s but David soon discovers her alibi is false. Then there’s Miss Trindle, her arrival at 15 Terrapin Street from Jermyn Street is shrouded in mystery, coming on the same time as Lord Leafe died in the very same street. Terry Lipscott is hoping that the police don’t search the whole house.

David rings his mate Bob, the navy wouldn’t take him because of a bad back, but he’s a journalist who seems to lack any real curiosity in the case of the unidentified body. By contrast David finds out that a tall, thin foreign type was in the pub the night before hassling customer with his black market stuff. The landlady threw him out but she noted that he was carrying a long knife with a distinctive handle. So David begins his own investigation. It all leads to the Fancy Goods Emporium, some very nasty black market types, and the uncovering of the household members dark secrets. Plenty of red herrings and gentle twists.

There’s a bitter sweet ending to all the fun and games in this breezy adventure mystery. David fits the mold of the plucky British amateur detective perfectly. Plenty Under the Counter is a skilful portrait of wartime London, both pluck and underbelly, is a measure of the talent of Hewitt as a highly competent writer. This is definitely an important contribution to the literature of WWII. As a book that looks at London during the war and as a murder mystery I hope it will have wide appeal. I can see readers groups being entertained by it.

Paul Burke 4/4

Plenty Under the Counter by Kathleen Hewitt
Imperial War Museum 9781912423095 pbk Sep 2019