I write a series about a World War Two Scotland Yard detective called Frank Merlin. There are five books in the series, with the fifth, Dead In The Water, coming out this month. I took up writing some fifteen years ago when the computer services company I co-founded was sold to an American company. I had wanted to write books from an early age but my legal and business career took precedence for nearly thirty years. After the sale of the company, I realised I had no excuse not to have a go.
Choosing the genre in which to write was quite straightforward. I love history and I love crime fiction so my first effort had to be historical crime fiction. What period should I choose? Initially I had an idea of writing about a Daniel Defoe type character in the late 17th century. As well as being the writer of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe was a businessman, political pamphleteer and spy. Great material for a historical mystery, and I may well return to this idea one day. However I ultimately decided on a detective series set in World War Two. I was inspired in this direction by personal factors. I was born in 1953 and the war loomed large in my childhood. My father had succumbed to a wasting lung disease while on active wartime service in Africa and was unwell throughout my early childhood. Most of my memories of him are of hospital visits and he eventually died in 1960. My mother told me many stories about him and about her own war experiences in Wales and London. She had watched the bombing of Swansea from her hilltop garden in the neighbouring town of Llanelli. She worked for the Great Western Railway and had been able to take advantage of employee free train tickets to visit London frequently during the war. German flying bombs had not deterred her from travelling up with her friends to enjoy the capital’s nightlife. She brought home to me the fact that despite everything in the war, ordinary life went on. Ordinary life, of course, includes crime and I decided it would be a good idea to write about a police detective in that period.
Initially my lead character was an out and out London cockney. However, on a Spanish holiday I decided to make him a little more exotic. Thus he is the son of a Spanish sailor, Javier Merino, who settled in the East End of London, married a local girl and ran a chandlers shop near the Port of London. In due course Javier Merino changed his name to Harry Merlin, and his eldest son Francisco, became Frank Merlin. His looks reflect his Latin origins and when agitated he often swears in Spanish, but otherwise he is a true Londoner.
I aimed from the outset to set Merlin’s fictional stories against a historically accurate wartime backdrop and to follow his adventures from the beginning to the end of the war. In the latest book, he has reached August 1942. The previous books are set in January 1940 (Princes Gate), September 1940 (Stalin’s Gold), June 1941 (Merlin At War), and December 1941 (A Death In Mayfair). With this pacing of stories, it will take another four or five books for Merlin to reach 1945.
Has Merlin changed at all during the five books of the series so far? In character terms not much. His personal circumstances however have changed quite dramatically. In Book 1, he is a lonely single widower, mourning the death from cancer of his English wife Alice. By Book 5 he is married again, this time to Sonia, a young Polish refugee, has a little boy, Harry, and is a happier man.
What am I learning as the series progresses? In writing terms, I hope I am learning to pace the stories better and to refine my characterisation. I am a seat of the pants author. I do not write to a detailed plan. I have a few general ideas in my head to inform the development of my story and just get going. So far this modus operandi has suited me well. What sort of general ideas do I have? In my fourth book, A Death In Mayfair, for example, I knew I wanted to have a story set against the background of the British film industry. As part of my pre-writing research I read various wartime film industry histories and several biographies of film stars and producers of the period like Rex Harrison and Alexander Korda. This research heavily influenced the characterisation in the novel and the plot largely emerged from the nature of the invented characters.
Another thing learned as my experience has grown is the importance of the editing process. I write the first draft straight off, without significant adjustment. Then I go over the whole book several times. On my latest book, I did fifteen full edits. With my longest book to date, Merlin At War, there were over twenty.
The themes and backgrounds of the various books have been quite diverse. Princes Gate is set against a backdrop of the arguments for and against appeasement of Hitler, which were still being heavily debated in the early days of the war. Stalin’s Gold takes place at the time of the Battle of Britain, and the story revolves around a group of RAF Polish fighter pilots. Merlin At War is about spying among De Gaulle’s Free French. The background of A Death In Mayfair I’ve already touched on. The new book, Dead In The Water, has among its themes the racial prejudice of the arriving American troops, and the circulation of art looted from wealthy Jewish families before the war. The principal challenge as I move from book to book is to maintain or improve the quality and range of my research.
The next book in the series (Merlin 6) will probably be set around Spring 1943. I’ve only just begun my research. I have one vague idea about the book’s content at the moment but this might change as I read more. I know that somewhere out there are bound to be new wartime facts which will provide further inspiration.
(c) Mark Ellis
About Dead in the Water:
The Second World War rages on but Britain now faces the Nazi threat with America at its side.
In a bombed-out London swarming with gangsters and spies, DCI Frank Merlin continues his battle against rampant wartime crime. A mangled body is found in the Thames just as some items of priceless art go mysteriously missing. What sinister connection links the two?
Merlin and his team follow a twisting trail of secrets and lies as they investigate a baffling and deadly puzzle .
Praise for the DCI Frank Merlin series:
‘Masterly . . . compelling . . . one of the most attractive characters to emerge in recent detective-thriller fiction’ ANDREW ROBERTS, SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR
‘Against the backdrop of Blitz-hit London, this stylish thriller sees Scotland Yard’s Frank Merlin investigate a tangled conspiracy’SUNDAY MIRROR
Order your copy online here.