British WWII Intrigue

What is it about England that produces so many good mysteries? Is it something in the water, the air, or the culture that gives writers the tools to craft so many outstanding who dunnits? I don’t assiduously read the genre – there are those who readily devour mysteries at a frightening pace – but it’s impossible to read widely and not appreciate the heavy hitters, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie to P.D. James to many others. And among that list, I propose including Kathleen Hewitt.

Hewitt (1893 – 1980) was a prolific writer and playwright, active in London literary and artistic circles, and a well-received author during her lifetime. Thanks to the Imperial War Museum, one of her mysteries, Plenty Under the Counter, was recently reissued. It is, if you will pardon the phrase, a cracking good tale. Called a “wartime classic” by the series editors, it is a page-turner in the tradition of the best sort of mystery.

Plenty Under the Counter is set in London during the Blitz. The war’s conclusion was unknown, the city was under attack, and flourishing throughout the metropolis was an underground economy. That feature of the tale is particularly interesting, as it gives a real flavor for life at the time. Hewitt wrote the book in 1943 as she lived in London, navigated the bombed out streets, and clearly had a handle on the pulse of the city. It bears emphasizing, too, that she was a well-established author at this time. Her talents shine throughout. Characters are distinct, diverse and deftly sketched. Plotting is tight and the time frame compressed, giving an urgency to the story. It is skillfully crafted work that I could easily see finding its way to the stage or cinema.

The book’s hero is an airman on the last week of leave. Flight Lieutenant David Heron is keen on seeing his nurse girlfriend, but as the story opens, there’s a body in the garden of his boarding house with a knife in its back. Heron is good friends with “Meakie,” the former showgirl who runs the house and is having a difficult time with her errant daughter, Thelma. The cast of characters include a fellow navy seaman, a German doctor, a spinster, a maid and the criminals lurking about. Heron’s self-appointed task is solving the crime and we’re along for the ride.

It’s a truly enjoyable read, very good fun and a great example of the genre.

David Potash