Mark Ellis on Action This Day

Mark Ellis discusses the latest Aspects of History short story collection.
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Mark Ellis. Can you tell us more about Frank Merlin, and the inspiration behind Let Sleeping Dogs Lie – your short story in the Action This Day WW2 short story collection?

Frank Merlin is a half-Spanish Scotland Yard detective working in WW2 London. His dark good looks have a hint of the Mediterranean about them. Otherwise, born and brought up a Cockney in the East End of London, his foreign side shows only occasionally in Spanish oaths when really angered. The inspiration for Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, my story in Action This Day and the very first Frank Merlin short story, came from seeing someone who was the spitting image of an old deceased friend on the Tube.

Why do you think WW2 still appeals so much to readers?

I think WW2 continues to appeal because it is such a powerful story of good against evil and is, just about, still within living memory.

Which historians and novelists who work in the period do you admire and read? Do you know any of your fellow authors featured in Action This Day?

There are so many brilliant historians and novelists who have written or are writing about this period. Confining myself only to those living or dead whom I have read quite recently I would single out Andrew Lownie, Philip Ziegler, Andrew Roberts, John Lawton, Graham Greene and Juliet Gardiner. Of my fellow authors in Action This Day, I have read and thoroughly enjoyed books by Alex Gerlis and Alan Bardos and look forward to reading books by the others.

How do you research your novels? Was writing a short story a welcome relief from writing a novel?

In my research I use whatever materials are available wherever they are. I used to spend much time in libraries and places like Kew Public Records Office. I still do but less so given the immense amount of information that can now be accessed on the internet. Also, after writing five books set in WW2, I have built up a reasonably large library of my own. Apart from standard histories of London at war by historians like Philip Ziegler, I like to draw on diaries kept during the war. These can either be by people directly involved in the war like Alan Brooke, or by well-connected social animals like Chips Channon and Harold Nicolson. Also very useful are contemporary novels written in the war years by authors like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green and Muriel Spark. Lastly there are many wonderful films set in WW2. Allowances often have to be made for historical accuracy but they can still be very useful as to the tone of the times.

Can you tell us a little more about what you are working on at the moment?

I am currently working on the 6th volume of the Frank Merlin wartime detective series. There is as yet no title. My Merlin stories usually take place at six to nine month intervals during the war. Dead In The Water, the latest published Merlin book, is set in August 1942. The new book is set in May 1943, just after the Allies finally defeated Rommel’s Afrika Korps and took control of North Africa. I am just about half way through my first draft. Needless to say Merlin has murders to investigate. There are two at the moment. Perhaps there’ll be more. Many people are unaware that there was a crime boom during the war with reported crime in England and Wales rising by approximately sixty per cent between 1939 and 1945. Accordingly Merlin always has his hands full!

Mark Ellis is a bestselling novelist and author of the Frank Merlin Detective series. Action This Day is out now.