Mark Ellis talks to Paul Burke about his latest DCI Frank Merlin thriller and the true stories that underpin the novel.
Mark Ellis’s historical police procedural, A Death in Mayfair, is the fourth to feature DCI Frank Merlin, an Anglo-Spanish police detective with Scotland Yard during WW2. Mark grew up ‘under the shadow of his parents’ experience of the Second World War’. His novels reflect his fascination with the contrast between the nation’s ‘heroic endeavour’ and crime thriving. His father served in the navy and died young. His mother witnessed the heavy bombardment of Swansea and also attended tea dances in wartime London under the bombs and doodlebugs.
The Frank Merlin series opened in 1939 and will follow the detective through to the end of the war. A Death in Mayfair is set in December, 1941, beginning on the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Life in Blitz Britain is tough, the war isn’t going well and a new ally in the fight against Nazi Germany will be vital. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard and Frank Merlin have to content with the ongoing battle against the organised gangs in London. Then two young women are murdered; one a famous film actress, the other a working class girl of no consequence. Merlin’s investigations soon uncover disturbing links between the film industry and the city’s underbelly and not all the unsavoury characters here are London gangland thugs. Merlin is keen to find justice for both women but his bosses want him to prioritize the murder of the beautiful film star. The film studios have their own problems and they don’t want the police poking too deeply into their affairs. The gangsters seem to be continually coming up with new and inventive schemes to take advantage of the war, Merlin would dearly love to take them down.
Before we get too deeply into the book I ask Mark about crime in London at the time.
Reported crime in England and Wales rose by just under 60 per cent between 1939 and 1945. A number of wartime factors contributed to this increase. In the autumn of 1940 and the winter and spring of 1941, London and other British cities were subjected to the heavy German air bombardment known as the Blitz. The chaos and destruction this caused was great for criminals. Police resources were heavily stretched and looting, burglary and theft became rife. The blackout was another gift to criminals. British towns and cities were pitch-black throughout the war and the criminal classes took full advantage. The British wartime government also introduced hundreds of restrictive regulations, most notably rationing. People sought to avoid or get round these regulations and accordingly a black market arose. This market thrived throughout the war years and survived for several years after as many wartime restrictions and regulations continued to remain in place. Prostitution and vice also boomed during the war. There were huge numbers of troops stationed in Britain. By 1944, ahead of D-Day, the figure exceeded 3 million. Hordes of soldiers and sailors on leave roamed through London and other towns looking for female company. Pimps and brothel-owners were happy to provide them with what they wanted.
As many young men went off to war what was it like for the Metropolitan Police? Were the police involved in Home Front intelligence work?
The Metropolitan Police Force was over a thousand shy of its full complement of 20,000 in 1939. As the war proceeded the Force lost many experienced police officers to the military, to its obvious detriment. Efforts to remedy the situation involved an increase in the number of full-time or part-time special or war reserve constables. While these reserve policemen included many good men, they were mostly older, inexperienced and less effective. Some indeed were completely inappropriate. The notorious murderer John Christie of 10 Rillington Place fame was a reserve constable for a while. As regards police involvement in security matters, the Met would inevitably have such dealings (viz Merlin At War) but this area was the primary preserve of MI5.
So was the boom in criminal activity all about the gangs?
Gang activity in Britain was brisk in the 1920s and 1930s (viz Peaky Blinders) and continued unabated during the war. London gangs in particular sought to make the best of the enhanced criminal opportunities the war brought. I’m not aware that the war caused any significant personality change in criminals. Many people seem to be under the impression that criminals of the period were more easy-going as a way of supporting the war effort. Far from it. The gangs were ruthless and violent before, during and after the war. There were also plenty of terrible murders and rapes between 1939 and 1945. Gordon Cummins, the Blackout Ripper, maimed and killed four women in Central London in February 1942. Billy Hill, one of the most prominent of the London gang leaders did try to avoid provoking the police unnecessarily with heavy violence, as he thought it was better for business. However, after the war he became a mentor to one of the most vicious gangs in British criminal history, the Krays.
It’s clear that A Death in Mayfair is well researched and historical accuracy matter to Mark, why?
There are many examples of fiction distorting the truth in books and films. It may not matter to many but I get upset by particularly bad examples of this. In 1945, a Hollywood film called Operation Burma gave Errol Flynn and his American forces credit for victory in Burma which had actually been achieved by British and Commonwealth soldiers. To my mind this was a completely unacceptable adjustment of truth as it betrayed the memory of our brave soldiers. In another more recent film, the Americans were egregiously given credit for breaking the Enigma code. No doubt there are books or films which do similar disservice to America. I do the utmost to ensure historical accuracy in my books. I check things like the weather, what was on the radio on a particular night, and what could be found to eat in the shops or restaurants. Some might say I overdo it, but it is important to me to try and make the reader feel as if he has travelled back on a time machine to Merlin’s wartime London.
Why are we becoming more interested in the WW2 Home Front?
Last month saw the 75th anniversary of VE Day and this naturally drew the nation’s particular attention to the war and there was much coverage of the occasion. Generally, as the period becomes more remote and the remaining witnesses of the time pass on, I think interest in the Home Front and wartime life will continue to grow.
Comparisons have been made to war time death tolls and the Covid-19 crisis, do they have any relevance?
Covid-19 has provoked further interest in the wartime Home Front, as the death numbers have risen and become comparable with wartime deaths. Just to state the facts, 32,000 people died in the Blitz and there were 87,000 casualties. The total of war-related civilian deaths was 67,000. Over 384,000 members of the armed forces died between 1939 and 1945. Covid-19 deaths (over 39,000 as of the date of writing) thus now comfortably exceed Blitz deaths but have a way to go if they are to match total wartime deaths. The virus, however, has not destroyed any property. In the Blitz, over two million homes were destroyed, two-thirds of them in London. Also, apart from a brief panic in the early days of the epidemic, there has been no shortage of basic supplies. Food, petrol, clothing are all plentiful. They were not in the war. On the other side of the coin, cinemas, restaurants, theatres and pubs generally remained open through World War 2. We still yearn at present for their re-opening.
I have not yet seen any reports of a virus crime boom, but perhaps it is too early to say. As there was in the war, we have some new crimes to cope with. I suppose breaching lockdown rules might be compared with getting into trouble for not closing blackout curtains in the war. I don’t know the statistics, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the incidence of such civil disobedience was on a similar scale. The main difference of course between living through the virus and living through the war is that the war was an existential crisis. If Hitler had won, freedom would have been lost and the British way of life gone. Horrific as the effects of the virus have been, we do not face that.
A Death in Mayfair looks at the war time film industry and a number of real people appear in the novel plus a couple of character are inspired by real people.
I was prompted to write a Merlin story set in the WW2 film world (A Death In Mayfair) by an interesting piece of information I found in my research. I learned that in 1939 there were as many as 15 functioning film studios in and around London. This struck me as a surprisingly large number. I did some more digging and discovered how vibrant the British film industry was during the war years. Cinema was, of course, along with radio, the principal source of mass entertainment during that period. Television had been launched a few years previously but was closed down for the duration. Among the leading studios were Alexander Korda’s state of the art setup in Denham. Others included Ealing, Pinewood, Shepperton, and Isleworth. I enjoyed reading biographies of several of the leading industry characters at the time. Several, like Korda, Sam Spiegel, Rex Harrison and George Formby had an influence on my characterisation. In A Death In Mayfair, one of the principal characters is an actor who treats women badly. Harrison was notorious for this. Two of his partners committed suicide (Carole Landis and Rachel Roberts) because of him. Another of my characters is a film producer with a predilection for young girls, an interest shared by Sam Spiegel, the Oscar-winning producer of The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.
As Mark says the story of A Death in Mayfair gets into some dark territory; rape and child sexual exploitation. I just wonder how much #MeToo was on his mind as he wrote.
I believe the #MeToo campaign reached prominence towards the end of 2017. At that point I had already read about Sam Spiegel, a very Harvey Weinstein type of character, and had started to write A Death In Mayfair. Of course the parallels struck me straightaway and I was very aware of them as I wrote the book. The fact was that the behaviour of many men in power in Hollywood and elsewhere in the industry in the 1940s and beyond was horrific and completely on a par with Weinstein’s. The difference was that no one questioned it.
Merlin is in many ways a very English detective but also has Spanish heritage, what does that bring to his story?
When I originally conceived the idea of writing about a detective in WW2 London, my protagonist was going to be a straightforward London Cockney who had made good in the police force. Then when I was on holiday in Spain it occurred to me that it might be more fun to give him his current, slightly exotic, half-Spanish, half-English background. This background contributes, amongst other things, to his looks – dark, tall and handsome – and entitles him to swear in Spanish when he’s angry. He does not have a particularly Latin temperament, so takes after his mother in that. Perhaps most importantly, the Spanish connection has given and continues to give me plot ideas. When researching Stalin’s Gold, the second Merlin book, I was reading a Spanish history book for purposes of Merlin background when I came on a story about a shipment of government gold from Spain to Russia during the Spanish Civil War, part of which went missing. This ended up forming the foundation of Stalin’s Gold’s plot. In my current work in progress, Merlin’s Spanish family connections play an important part in the story.
Mark has described the process of writing as sculpting, what does he mean by that?
I sometimes read about authors who are able to produce near perfect first drafts of their books. If only! More power to them but that is not my way. When I start writing a Merlin book I have no advance plan of how the story unfolds. I have the exact period of the book (December 1941 in the case of A Death In Mayfair) and I have my well-established principal Scotland Yard protagonists. There is also the benefit of my standard three months of intense research of the exact period. This will usually have generated a number of broad plot ideas (film industry and vice related in the case of A Death In Mayfair). Then off I go wherever my pen (or IPad) takes me. When I’m about two thirds of the way through the first draft, I have to decide how to resolve all my running plot lines. This can be a nerve-wracking moment but so far I’ve always managed to work things out. After I’ve finally completed the first draft, I have my foundation, or as I see it, my sculptor’s raw material. Then I set to moulding the material into final shape. This can take as many as 25 redrafts.
The contrasts in the story struck me; extreme wealth and poverty, glamour and sleaze, ordinary and famous people, all within a very defined social framework.
WW2 Britain was of course a very different place to Britain now. To use that hackneyed phrase of LP Hartley’s ‘the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. That said I have to confess that I don’t find it too difficult reimagining life on the Home Front. I was born in 1953. I come from an ordinary background and am sure that the life of my early childhood was not so much different to that of ordinary people in the war, except without some of the privations. I grew up surrounded by people who had experienced the war years as adults. After my father died of a long term illness acquired on wartime service, I lived with my grandparents, who’d lived through the First World War as well, and my mother. The stories they told me of wartime life in Wales and London naturally inform my writing.
One of the victims is discovered among the dead of a bomb site, dumped there to mask the crime, was this based on a real incident?
The incident of the girl discovered dead in a bombed out building is indeed based on a real event I came upon in my research. In April 1941, Harry Dobkin killed his wife and buried her in the ruins of a bombed Baptist chapel in Vauxhall, hoping that when discovered she’d be accounted an air raid victim. The body wasn’t in fact discovered until May 1942. A pathologist examined the body and determined that she had been strangled. His task was made easier as the corpse had been covered in builders lime and thus well preserved. Dobkin had clearly mistaken builders lime with quicklime, which would have aided the body’s decomposition. Dobkin went to the gallows.
So where does Frank Merlin go from here?
The stories so far have been spaced at six to ten monthly intervals. On that basis, I have another four or five books to get him to 1945. I am currently about half way through the draft of the as yet untitled Merlin 5. It is set in August 1942. The plot lines relate to art theft, espionage and racial prejudice among the arriving American forces. Action as usual is predominantly in London, but other cities like Lisbon feature. I always add a sprinkling of real figures to my fictional cast. In the new book these include Calouste Gulbenkian, at the time the richest man in the world.
Finally, who is Mark reading and who are his go to authors?
I am currently reading the wonderful Michael Connelly’s latest, Fair Warning. I have just finished Boris Akunin’s The Coronation, one of his entertaining 19th century Russian detective series. My favourite crime writer of all time is Georges Simenon. I love Maigret. I also rate Patricia Highsmith very highly.
The four novels in the Merlin series are: Princes Gate, Stalin’s Gold, Merlin at War, and A Death in Mayfair. Mark Ellis’ books regularly appear in the Kindle bestseller charts. He is a member of the Crime Writers Association (CWA). Merlin at War was on the CWA Historical Dagger Longlist in 2018. Now a full time writer, Mark Ellis is a former barrister and businessman living in Swansea.
A Death in Mayfair, (ISBN: 9781786156723, paperback, Headline Accent £8.99).