The Cheltenham Literature Festival – 5th to 14th October 2018
Talking Location With… author Mark Ellis – WW2 London
18th November 2017
#TalkingLocationWith…..Mark Ellis, the locations featured in his WW2 Merlin at War detective series.
“The principal locale, and in many ways as much the star of the series as Merlin himself, is London”
I am the author of a detective thriller series set in WW2 London. The chief protagonist of my series is Detective Chief Inspector Frank Merlin, a brave and ingenious Scotland Yard police officer who battles valiantly against the crime boom of the wartime years as Britain fights for its survival against the Nazis. I say ‘crime boom’ because reported crime in the country grew by almost sixty per cent between 1939 and 1945, aided by, amongst other things, the blackout, the chaos of the Blitz, and the burgeoning black market.
There are three books in the Merlin series so far. The first, Princes Gate, is set in January 1940, during the period known as ‘The Phoney War’. Stalin’s Gold, the second, takes place in September 1940, against the background of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. The third, Merlin At War, which has just been published, is set in June 1941, just after the Battle of Crete and just before Hitler’s invasion of Russia. It is my intention to follow Merlin’s adventures through to 1945 and I plan to set the next in the series in December 1941, around the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
The principal locale, and in many ways as much the star of the series as Merlin himself, is London. Having had the benefit of living in London on and off for over 40 years, I know the place pretty well. I have walked down most of its main streets and visited the majority of it famous buildings and attractions. I have attended many of its cinemas and theatres, eaten at scores of its restaurants, and drunk at probably far too many of its pubs. Of course it has changed immensely since the war, but much of it would still be very familiar to wartime Londoners. The River Thames still flows majestically through the heart of the city, and many of its central sights look much as they would have at the outbreak of the war. Some restoration work may have been done but Parliament Square, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, St James’s Park, the Mall, Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park are all intact and standing where they have always been. The main thoroughfares of Piccadilly, Regent Street, Oxford Street, the Strand and Fleet Street may house new shops and offices but they continue to connect up the city just as they have done for hundreds of years. I was born in 1953 and my principal memories of first visiting central London as a young child in 1958 are of those same unchanged places. One feature I remember, however, is thankfully no more – derelict bomb sites were everywhere. It took a very long time after the war for all the bomb sites to be redeveloped. Those early childhood images of London were thus quite close to what I would have seen as a visitor in 1945.
So London is a major part of the books and I spend a great deal of research time trying to ensure that my portrayal of wartime London is authentic. As the series has developed, though, I have enjoyed introducing other locations. It is a feature of the series that real historical figures are often intermingled with my fictional creations. In Princes Gate, one such real figure is Joseph Kennedy, the US Ambassador to Britain in 1940. He was not keen on the British winter and I had fun writing a scene in which he is lounging on vacation by a Floridian pool in the company of a beautiful girl. Stalin’s Gold features scenes in Spain, Poland, Germany and Russia. The opening scene of the book features Stalin and his evil sidekick Beria meeting in a Kremlin office. The new book travels even further with action in Crete, Cairo, Buenos Aires, New York, Paris, and Vichy.
In nearly every case, the places featured have been ones I have myself visited, mostly in my business career before I became a writer. I lived and worked for three years in New York, for example. A great city! However if I have no personal experience of a planned locale in a book, I try and go there. Thus I visited both Warsaw and Moscow when researching Stalin’s Gold and my writing about them certainly benefitted from the experience.
I don’t quite know what places will feature in Merlin 4. Perhaps in light of Pearl Harbour there’ll be a Japanese angle? I’ve been to Tokyo before but a long time ago. Another reason to visit would not be unwelcome!