Fiction Book of the Month: Mark Ellis on The Embassy Murders

This novel was the first of the author's Frank Merlin series, and he sat down with our editor to discuss it.
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Mark, you’ve created quite the character in Frank Merlin. What sort of man is he?

Frank Merlin is a man in his early 40s as the series starts. He holds the rank of Detective Chief Inspector and  heads a Scotland Yard serious crimes unit. Merlin is an extremely, brave, deep-thinking and insightful investigator of crimes working with a very supportive team. The son of an English mother and Spanish father, there are elements of both nationalities in his character and temperament. He fought in World War One and would like to join up for World War Two but is too important to the Yard to be let go. Personally, as the series starts, he is a lonely widower who misses his recently deceased wife very much. He enjoys a drink and is addicted to Fisherman’s Friend menthol lozenges.

The Embassy Murders starts your series off at the American Embassy. One Grosvenor Square was a crucial location when the British Empire stood alone against Nazi Germany in 1939. How important are the political considerations in the plot?

Very. The story takes place in early 1940 during what became called ‘The Phoney War’ when Britain was not involved in any significant war action and life on the Home Front was relatively normal. The principal political argument of the time concerned the issue of appeasement. Should Britain do its best to come to some accommodation with Hitler and thus preserve the peace, or fight him to the death? This debate figures significantly in The Embassy Murders.

Ambassador Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK & RFK) is a character in the novel, and thought it prudent to retreat to the countryside once war started. What was his reputation in wartime London?

Joe Kennedy was a very significant appeaser. He thought Britain didn’t have a hope in hell against Germany and should concede whatever was necessary to Hitler to avoid a war. He spent much of his wartime period as Ambassador away from London for fear of getting caught up in Nazi attacks on the capital. He was naturally loathed by anti-appeasers but admired by the substantial pro-appeasement lobby. His reputation in the US was not great. When President Roosevelt appointed Kennedy  to head the Securities and Exchange Commission before the war, he is reputed to have justified the appointment with the words ‘It takes a thief to catch a thief’.

Did you base Merlin on any historical characters, or indeed were any fictional detectives helpful?

I can’t say I did consciously base Merlin on any historical or fictional character. However, I was no doubt influenced when creating him by some of the crime authors and fictional detectives I particularly love. Simenon is my favourite crime writer and perhaps there is a little Maigret in Merlin.

How did you plan the plot for The Embassy Murders, and do you work it out as you write, or beforehand?

I never plan my books out in detail. I start out with a few plot ideas in my head and see where those ideas take me. I always heavily research the specific period about which I’m writing before I start and that research often gives me plot ideas. To focus the murder story in The Embassy Murders against the background of the appeasement argument seemed natural after researching January 1940.

One assumes that once the war started, the entire population of Britain linked arms and marched in glorious harmony towards final victory, but crime in London was rife wasn’t it?

It was. Many people seem to think that criminals did their bit for King and country by scaling down their criminal activities. Far from it! Reported crime in England and Wales grew by nearly 60 per cent in the war years. The blackout made things easier for criminals. War rules and regulations introduced in the war years created many new opportunities for crime. Rationing paved the way for black market profiteering and forgery. Bombing offered looters rich pickings. The influx of massive numbers of soldiers, sailors and airmen meant that the vice industry in London and around the country boomed. Criminal gangs run by men like Billy Hill and Jack Spot made hay. Career criminal Mad Frankie Fraser famously berated Hitler for ending the war: ‘The war was a criminal’s paradise. The most exciting and profitable ever. It broke my heart when Hitler surrendered.’

Before becoming a writer you were a successful barrister and entrepreneur. Did you always want to write novels, and what advice do you have for those budding authors out there?

Yes. I always wanted to write novels from an early age. I made a few youthful attempts but once I’d left university and was working full time I couldn’t keep it up. I took writing up in earnest when in the early 2000s I sold a computer company I’d founded. Advice? There is hardly a writer around who has not faced multiple rejections. To have a chance of success you’ve got to believe in yourself and in Churchill’s famous words ‘Keep buggering on.”

I was struck when I read Dead in the Water before our podcast last year, that despite this being #5, I quite easily slipped into the world of Merlin. Do you write each one as if the reader is new to the series?

Yes. I try to write every Merlin book as a stand alone so readers can start wherever they like, though some inevitably prefer to read the books in order.

Will we see a sixth Merlin novel?

I’m currently 100,000 words into the as yet untitled Merlin 6. It is set in May/June of 1943 just after Britain has completed victory over Rommel in North Africa and there is a little more optimism in the air, particularly in light of the US’s entry into the war. An Indian gynaecologist is found strangled in his South Kensington flat. The body of a man battered to death is found on a Limehouse bomb site. Merlin investigates. I hope to have the book out in the summer or autumn of 2024.

Mark Ellis is the author of The Embassy Murders, the first in the Frank Merlin series. You can listen to Mark chat with our editor on the Aspects of History Podcast