Search

fullybooked2017

Tag

1940s

PLENTY UNDER THE COUNTER . . . Between the covers

wartime header

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.

PUTC banner

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.

PUTC footer

THE MATHEMATICAL BRIDGE . . . Between the covers

TMB HEADER

“Detective Inspector Eden Brooke trudged into Market Hill, the city’s great square, as snowflakes fell, thick and slow, each one a mathematical gem, seesawing down through the dead of night. Every sound was muffled, a clock striking the hour out of time, the rhythmic bark of a riverside dog, the distant rumble of a munitions train to the east, heading for the coastal ports. The blackout was complete, but the snow held its own light, an interior luminescence, revealing the low clouds above. Brooke stopped in his tracks, his last crisp footstep echoless, and wondered if he could hear the snow falling; an icy whisper in time with the sparkling of the crystals as they settled on the cobbles, composing themselves into a seamless white sheet.”

TMB“Begin as you mean to go on” says the old adage, and Jim Kelly sets himself a hard task with the brilliant and evocative first paragraph of The Mathematical Bridge. The beautiful use of language aside, Kelly’s first 126 words convey a wealth of information. A country at war. Midwinter. A city preparing for an attack from the air. A policeman out and about when honest men are abed.

Eden Brooke first appeared in The Great Darkness (2018) and you can read my review by clicking the blue link. A copper in the university city of Cambridge, he is a war veteran, not of the Western Front, but of the desert campaign, one of ‘Allenby’s Lads.’ We join him in that first winter of the Second World War, when German bombers have yet to inflict their terror on the houses and streets below them. Tragedy strikes when a boy, evacuated from his London home to the relative safety of a Roman Catholic community in Cambridge, is feared drowned in the fast-freezing River Cam. His body is eventually recovered, but not before Brooke has unearthed a plot to bring death and destruction to the streets of Cambridge.

The conspirators are not Germans but people from much nearer home who firmly believe that their enemy’s enemy is their friend. With two Irish republican conspirators sitting in a Birmingham jail, sentenced to death for a 1939 bomb atrocity in Coventry, Brooke realises that the next potential target for the IRA is Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, younger brother to the King. Henry is due to make a morale-boosting visit to Cambridge to boost the war effort, and Brooke is desperate to find the link between the dead boy in the river and the Irish community who worship at St Alban’s church.

Eden Brooke is an engaging character. Blighted by vision problems and chronic insomnia – both the result of his wartime treatment at the hands of brutal Turkish captors – he goes about his work with a steely intensity, much to the despair of his wife and daughter. Kelly’s portrait of provincial England in the first months of WW2 is mesmerising, more so given the added piquancy of our knowledge of what will happen, contrasted with the uncertainty of the characters in the novel.

Give Jim Kelly a landscape, a town, a city, an isolated village, and he will mobilise and send it off to war. Fans of his Philip Dryden novels will know the dramatic chiaroscuro he paints that shows how the comfortable middle-class cathedral city of Ely sits surrounded by dark and broken hard-scrabble villages out in the Fen. His Norfolk copper, Peter Shaw, knows only too well the contrast between the rough estates of King’s Lynn and the Chelsea-On-Sea second homes further up the Norfolk coastline. Eden Brooke’s Cambridge is a vivid and vital character in The Mathematical Bridge. Kelly makes it, despite the murders, an island of relative calm and rationality, for beyond it, out there in the flat darkness, lies The Fen.

doublesmallmathematicalbridgeThis is writing of the highest quality. Not just with the lame caveat ‘for a crime novel’ but writing with a touch of poetry and elegance gracing every line. Even when the crime is solved, the perpetrators are behind bars, and the delightfully complex contradictions of the plot have been explained, Kelly (right) still has the emotional energy to give us a last scene which manages to be poignant but, at the same time, life-affirming.

The Mathematical Bridge is published by Allison & Busby and is out on 21st February. For more about Jim Kelly and his writing click this link.

 

A&B

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑