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September 20, 2019

PLENTY UNDER THE COUNTER . . . Between the covers

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T redhis 1943 novel by Kathleen Hewitt is the third in the excellent series of Imperial War Museum reprints of wartime classics, but couldn’t be more different from the first two, From The City, From The Plough and Trial By Battle. Whereas they were both literary novels shot through with harrowing accounts of men in battle, Plenty Under The Counter is an almost jolly affair, a conventional murder mystery set against the trials, tribulations and financial opportunities of civilian life in wartime London.

PUTC coverA jolly murder? Well, of course. Fictional murders can be range from brutal to comic depending on the genre, and although the corpse found in the back garden of Mrs Meake’s lodging house – 15 Terrapin Road – is just as dead as any described by Val McDermid or Michael Connelly, the mood is set by the chief amateur investigator, a breezy and frightfully English RAF pilot called David Heron on recuperation leave from his squadron, and his elegantly witty lady friend Tess. He is from solid county stock:

“There was his Aunt Jane, enduring the full horror of only having two servants to wait on her. There was an uncle, retired from the Indian Army, now clinging like a cobweb to the musty armchairs in his club.”

R redeaders will not need a degree in 20th century social history to recognise that the book’s title refers to the methods used by shopkeepers to circumvent the official rationing of food and fancy goods. More sinister is the presence – both in real life and in the book – of criminals who exploit the shortages to make serious money playing the black market and for whom deadly violence is just a way of life.

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Hewitt gives us plenty of Waugh-ish social satire on the way, partly courtesy of David’s friend Bob Carter, a young man with what they used to call ‘a dodgy ticker’. Turned down from active service he expends his energy on extracting donations from rich people in order to open a bizarre club, where he hopes that people of all nations (barring Jerry, the Eyeties and the Nips, of course) will mingle over a glass or two and thus further the cause of nation speaking unto nation. There is also the grotesque Annie, who serves as Mrs Meake’s maid of all work. Annie is painfully thin, a little short of six feet tall, and the first thing that most people see of her when she enters a room is her teeth.

T redhe ingredients simmering away in the pot of this murder mystery are exotic. There is Mrs Meake, matronly now in her middle age, but still dreaming of the days when she was a beauty in the chorus line on the London stage; her daughter Thelma, a thoroughly spoiled brat who has movie aspirations above her ability; also, who was the swarthy seafaring man trying to sell a fancy-handled knife in the local pub? David’s fellow residents at 15 Terrapin Road are a study in themselves – Cumberbatch, the retired rubber planter with a secret in his room; Lipscott, the Merchant Navy man besotted with a waif-like girl, and the misanthropic Smedley, with his limp and a sudden need for £100.

Kathleen Hewitt WC_01_AThe story rattles along in fine style as the hours tick by before David has to return to the war. He has two pressing needs. One is to buy the special licence which will enable him to marry Tess, and the other is to find the Terrapin Road murderer. Hewitt (right) is too good a writer to leave her story lightly bobbing about on the bubbles of wartime champagne (probably a toxic mix of white wine and ginger ale) and she darkens the mood in the last few pages, leaving us to ponder the nature of tragedy and self-sacrifice.

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THE PENNY BLACK . . . Between the covers

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No, this is not a novel about stamp collecting, and it would be a skillful writer who could turn the rather dry pursuit of philately into a thriller. The Penny Black is a pub – one of three – in the apparently languid and peaceful Norfolk riverside village of Horning. On the river pleasure boats glide, coots skate and squabble while, beneath the ripples, Esox Lucius bides his time, ready to snap up an unwary Roach or two, or perhaps a duckling who has strayed too far from its siblings.

Rob ParkerThis riparian idyll is about to suffer a tsunami of turbulence however, partly due to one of its temporary residents. To call Ben Bracken, the creation of author Rob Parker (left), a Wild Card is something of an understatement. In A Wanted Man and Morte Point (review here) Bracken manages to use his Special Forces training to run rings around his government handlers, notch up an impressive body count, and still evade the clutches of the men, both good and bad, who would rather like to see him incarcerated either in a prison cell or – better still – a coffin.

Bracken has assumed the identity of an itinerant nobody. His day job is swilling out the chemical toilets on the hire boats which putter up and down the river on their journey through the Norfolk Broads. He lodges with an unassuming local couple who have no idea about his turbulent background. After a chance midnight encounter on the river Bracken learns that one of the local pleasure boats, owned by a villager, is actually a floating cannabis farm. A separate incident involving local yobs pushes Bracken into a limelight that he has to escape from, and in order to establish a new identity, he stages a bank robbery with a difference – he only steals money from his own account.

Penny coverWith the cash needed to pay for a fake passport and drivers’ licence Bracken prepares to bid farewell to Horning, a brutal murder and an encounter with a new enemy puts him – literally – on his back, recuperating in a lonely farmhouse. We learn that Norfolk’s would-be Medellin Cartel are actually dancing to the tune played by a London mobster called Terry “Turn-up” Masters, with whom Bracken has serious history. When Masters and his thugs turn up in Horning at the same time as a government Black Ops unit determined to eliminate Bracken, the scene is set for a spectacular shootout involving a buried cache of Home Guard weapons, gallons of blood sprayed liberally over the walls of The Penny Black and enough corpses to keep the local pathologist busy for weeks.

Rob Parker writes in a full-on style which frequently exceeds the speed limit and sometimes skates dangerously on the thin ice of probability, but he is never less than entertaining. Amid the mayhem, there are some sharp social observations:

“….he looks as retired as anyone I’ve ever seen. Natty purple v-neck sweater over cream chinos, wire glasses on a face near split by age-old laughter lines. He’s the poster boy for an over-fifties life insurance plan.”

There is also poignancy, such as when the elderly villager Eric recalls his late wife, collateral damage in the Horning drug wars:

“She had a mouth on her, at times. Sometimes she would put us in a sticky situation, simply because she had something to say, and couldn’t persuade herself not to say it. I’d sit there sometimes waiting for her to do it, just like a time bomb, waiting for her to go off…… But that’s all. That was the only thing. I used to get a bit wound up by it ….. Everyone’s allowed to have flaws, you’re not human if you don’t have flaws.”

The Penny Black is published by Endeavour Media and is available now.

Endeavour

NOTHING ELSE REMAINS . . . Between the covers

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WFBTCWe first met London’s Detective Inspector Jake Porter and Sergeant Nick Styles in Robert Scragg’s debut novel What Falls Between The Cracks (review here) almost exactly a year ago. This description of the pair is from that book:

“Styles had his weakness for all things Hugo Boss, his image neat and orderly, close cropped hair, number two all over. A few had referred to him as the Met’s answer to Thierry Henry, until they saw him play five-a-side football. Porter was from Irish stock, his wardrobe more high street fashion and his appearance, while not unkempt, had a more lived-in feel to it; hair so dark it bordered on black, refusing to be fully tamed by gel, but with a sense of messy style to it.”

NERPorter is still haunted by the death of his wife in a hit-and-run accident and, like all good fictional DIs, he is viewed by his bosses – in particular the officious desk jockey Milburn – as mentally suspect. He is forced to go for a series of counselling sessions with the force’s tame psychologist, but after one hurried and fruitless encounter, he becomes totally immersed in a puzzling case which involves an old friend of his, Max Brennan. Brennan has arranged to meet his long-estranged father for the first time, but the older man fails to make the rendezvous. When Brennan’s girlfriend is abducted, he turns to Porter for help.

The heavy stone that Porter turns over in his search for Brennan’s missing father reveals all kinds of nasty scuttling things that recoil at the daylight. Principal among these is a list of missing people, all businessmen, whose common denominator is that they have each resigned from their jobs with minimal notice given, citing personal health issues as the reason.

Meanwhile, Styles has a secret. His wife is expecting their first child and she has grave misgivings about her husband continuing as Porter’s partner, as their business puts them all too often – and quite literally – in the line of fire. Understandably, she recoils at the possibility of raising the child alone with the painful duty, at some point, of explaining to the toddler about the father they never knew. Styles has accepted her demand to transfer to something less dangerous, but as the Brennan Affair ratchets up in intensity, he just can’t seem to find the right moment to break the news to his boss.

This is a well written and entertaining police procedural with all the necessary tropes of the genre – maverick cop, desk-bound boss, chaotic personal lives, grimy city background and labyrinthine plot. Naturally, Porter finally gets to the bottom of the mystery of the missing businessmen, but this point was reached with a fair few pages left to go, so clearly something else is about to happen. Sure enough, it does, and it is clever plot twist which I certainly didn’t see coming. Robert Scragg may be a relative novice in the crime fiction stakes but, to mangle a metaphor, he casts his red herrings with the ease and accuracy of an expert.

Nothing Else Remains is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

Allison

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