Source: Review copy:
Publication: 5 September 2019 from The Imperial War Museum
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.
Gosh, this is a cracker of a book. I’m a sucker for novels set in a different time that take us back and allow us to know how it was – in this case to be living in London in the then. Of course Kathleen Hewitt was writing of her time and that means her backdrop is authentic and her language just spot on. Cigarettes are ‘gaspers’ and the shop that features heavily on the book is a ‘Fancy Goods Emporium’.
Set in the midst of the Blitz, Plenty Under the Counter concerns Flt. David Heron of the RAF who is on convalescent leave, as a result of a slight aeriel dispute with a Jerry. He’s been recovering for four months and has a week left before he returns to his Spitfires, or kites, as he callsthem. Heron, a former actor, is a debonair young man who has been awarded the DFC. He is also a young man in a hurry. He has found the girl of his dreams in Tess Carmichael. She is a children’s nurse working at a day nursery looking after the children who have not been evacuated or whose homes have been bombed during the Blitz. Heron is determined to get Tess to marry him before the week is out.
Heron is staying in a boarding house he frequents on a regular basis when on leave and this book is, in the main, centred on the characters there. And what characters they are! On his first night, a man is murdered in the back garden of his lodgings. No-one knows who he is, but Heron is driven to investigate.
As he does so, he learns more about his landlady Mrs Meake, once a treader of the stage boards and her daughter Thelma, a girl who is no better than she ought to be. Meake is something of a mother figure to Heron and she also employs a domestic called Annie, Though times are hard, Mrs Meake has managed to install telephone extensions in all her bedrooms and Heron himself is not averse to jumping in taxis and taking his young lady to the Savoy or similar establishments. So this is not a working class novel; these people are more of a reflection of Kathleen Hewitt’s own background.
As Heron investigates he comes up against the working of the Black Market, the main way of racketeers enhancing their profits during wartime. In the course of his investigations he will come up against sinister looking foreigners, racketeers and people with secrets to hide a plenty. In his efforts he will be aided by the local police in the form of Inspector Gracewell.
Hewitt writes with brio. Her central characters are spirited and full of good humour and positivity, essential for any wartime novel. She has created a range of characters each of whom hides a secret – some more exotic than others – and the whole positively sings with mystery, not unlike an Agatha Christie novel.
Verdict: A definite page turner, full of mystery, murder and a few deft twists that brings home the atmosphere of blitz torn London and young people full of spirit.
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.
About IWC Classics
In September 2019, to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, IWM will launch a wonderful new series with four novels from their archives all set during the Second World War – Imperial War Museums Wartime Classics.
Originally published to considerable acclaim, these titles were written either during or just after the Second World War and are currently out of print. Each novel is written directly from the author’s own experience and takes the reader right into the heart of the conflict. They all capture the awful absurdity of war and the trauma and chaos of battle as well as some of the fierce loyalties and black humour that can emerge in extraordinary circumstances. Living through a time of great upheaval, as we are today, each wartime story brings the reality of war alive in a vivid and profoundly moving way and is a timely reminder of what the previous generations experienced.