I write historical crime thrillers set in World War 2 London. The main protagonist of my series is Frank Merlin, a Scotland Yard detective. The stories are set against what I hope is an historically accurate portrayal of wartime Britain. Merlin’s first adventure, Princes Gate, takes place in January 1940, the period of the so-called ‘Phoney War’. The second book, Stalin’s Gold, is set in September 1940 amidst the tumult of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. The action in the third in the series, Merlin At War, takes place in July 1941, when Hitler was making his fateful move of invading Russia. December 1941, the month of Pearl Harbour, is the setting for the fourth and most recent in the series, A Death In Mayfair.
I try very hard to ensure that the action and background of my books are credible and true to their period. I do a great amount of research. I have built up a considerable personal library of WW2 history books, diaries, period novels et cetera and I inevitably make considerable use of internet sources. For my work in progress, the untitled as yet Merlin 5, I spent several months researching the summer of 1942. At that time the war hadn’t yet turned Britain’s way but optimism was beginning to grow. One of the major changes to life on the Home Front at that time was the arrival of thousands of American troops. This provided a great boost to morale but also brought with it some problems. One such was the racism prevalent among many white GIs. One of the key plots in my new book revolves around this subject.
Does the pursuit of historical accuracy in any way inhibit the writer in the aim of delivering a gripping story? I don’t think it necessarily does. It is certainly important not to overdo the didactic element of the book. Readers can be turned off if you try to cram too much historic information in at the expense of the fictional story. A balance is required and I hope I get it right. Historic events and characters feature in my novels. I like introducing readers to historical facts of which they are likely to be unaware. One important fact very relevant to a wartime detective series is that crime boomed in London during between 1939 and 1945. This is a surprise to most people, who think everyone on the Home Front mucked together in the effort to defeat Hitler, criminals included. Not so.
Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, De Gaulle, Joseph Kennedy, Herman Goering are among the real historical figures to feature in my novels. Some serve to alert the reader to developments in the war or to generate period atmosphere. Others may play a more integral part in the story. For example, in Princes Gate, there are murders in the American Embassy and the Kennedy family are involved. Stalin’s Gold features Josef Stalin’s desperate efforts to recover a cargo of gold stolen from Russia.
Sometimes, of course, it works better to fictionalise real characters. In A Death In Mayfair, whose plot revolves around the British wartime film industry, there are camouflaged versions of some of the famous film stars and producers of the time.
Does it matter if there are major or minor historical inaccuracies in fictional books or films? Generally I think it does but allow that, occasionally, it can be justified. Before I saw Gary Oldman’s recent Churchill film, I was disturbed to hear of a scene in which the wartime PM puts together one of his most famous speeches in consultation with a group of commuters on the London Underground. The scene was complete fiction. However when I watched it, I have to concede, it was dramatically effective. It was a relatively harmless lie and I forgave the writers. Other examples are less forgivable. In the 2000 WW2 movie, U-571, credit for the capture of the famous German Enigma code machine was given to the Americans. In fact the British and Poles were responsible for the capture and supply of the machine to Alan Turing and his brilliant code-breaking team at Bletchley. I thought this example of historical inaccuracy was a betrayal of brave people who did much to secure Allied victory.
I plan to take Merlin and his team all the way through to the end of the war. Merlin 5 will take them to the mid-point so there are still several books to come. I’m looking forward to writing them!
(c) Mark Ellis
The Frank Merlin series is published by Headline Accent, an imprint of Hachette, and by Audible. A new book in the series will be published later this year.
Mark Ellis will be interviewing author Sam Blake at the Gŵyl CRIME CYMRU Festival running from 26th April to 3rd May 2021. Gŵyl CRIME CYMRU Festival is Wales’ first international crime literature festival. Crime writing takes many forms – from crime fiction and non-fiction through to television and film. The festival’s intention is to provide visitors to the festival with an opportunity to meet and interact with top talent from around the world. See here for more details.
About A Death in Mayfair (The DCI Frank Merlin Series Book 4):
On a bright Sunday morning in Hawaii, Japanese planes swoop down and attack the US naval base at Pearl Harbour. America enters the war and Britain no longer stands alone against Hitler.
Conditions on the home front remain bleak. In a city pulverised by the Blitz, with rampant crime and corruption and overstretched police resources, life for Scotland Yard detective Frank Merlin continues as arduous as ever.
In the week of Japan’s aggression, the shattered body of beautiful film star Laura Curzon is found on the pavement beneath her Mayfair apartment, an apparent suicide. A mile away, the body of a strangled young girl is discovered in the rubble of a bombed-out building.
Merlin and his team investigate, encountering fraudulent film moguls, philandering movie stars, depraved Satanists and brutal gangsters as they battle through a wintry London in pursuit of the truth.
Order your copy online here.