Plenty Under the Counter by Kathleen Hewitt – a wartime murder mystery with and element of comedy


A murder mystery, a comedy, a brilliant plot, all set against a background of the London Blitz, rationing and so much more. The Imperial War Museum Wartime Series has discovered some wonderful books and reprinted them; this is the only one by a woman and features the Home Front in a lively way. Originally published in 1943, this reprint puts a book by a prolific but little known author back into the easy to buy lists, and it stands up to comparison with many late Golden Age detective fiction. The body appears on the first page, the mystery is investigated by a Flight-Lieutenant David Heron, war hero in a completely natural way, the events are dramatic but understandable, the characters truly live in their speech and behaviour. The investigation is given a time limit by David, the friends and acquaintances who help and hinder all have their own priorities. His relationship with Tess is lovely, and their conversations flirtatious and funny. Another memorable character is Bob Carter, disappointed in his attempts to join up to the military, he decides to establish a club for nationals from the twenty six allied nations. His progress via contacts in laying hands on furniture, alcohol and other necessities is a funny counter point to the shop of the title; the mysterious fancy goods shop that proves to have rationed items “Under the counter”  for those willing to pay extra. David is an ex actor, and his knowledge of the theatre provides an added layer of humour and entertainment, as well as a background to his jolly relationship with Mrs Meake, his landlady. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this insightful and mainly light-hearted murder mystery. 


The book begins with David’s rather rude awakening to discover that a body has been discovered in the garden of the house he has returned to from hospital following his plane being shot down. Mrs Meake is shaken by the questioning of a police inspector, which has already led to one of her lodgers departing. As David explains to his friend Bob and girlfriend Tess, the lay out of the house includes rooms for Mrs Meake’s daughter, Thelma, a sailor’s room who is frequently away, and a Mr Smedley. There are other eccentric lodgers who all have their moment, despite their tenuous links to the mystery. Strangers in the area turn up in the local pub and the streets, as this is a novel which happens in a small geographical area, a part of London full of atmosphere in 1942 when the novel is set.


I really enjoy novels which were written at a time when the outcome of the war was still uncertain, without the benefit of hindsight. Often written as entertainment and to raise morale among those spending time in difficult settings, these writings are spontaneous and full of the small details that the authors were witnessing every day. This novel is a fine example of an apparently prolific writer who manages to combine a mystery with a fine novel in any sense. I really enjoyed the dialogue, pace and setting of this book, but the characters are the real achievement. This is a great read for fans of middle twentieth century novels, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys classic crime novels.