Dead in the Water

An illuminating and enjoyable read.
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Dead in the Water is the fifth outing for DCI Frank Merlin, based in Second World War London, and the plot is complex. Leon van Buren, a refugee from occupied Holland, brings to Britain two priceless works of art, and hopes to sell them. The most likely purchaser is the immensely wealthy Calouste Gulbenkian, who is resident in Lisbon, and therefore needs to handle the authentication and purchase of the works through an intermediary, Frederick Vermeulen. But the two priceless works of art, even though their presence is kept quiet, raise questions (is van Buren the real owner of the pieces, or are they stolen?) and attract the wrong kind of attention (could they be stolen now?). Two sub-plots further muddy the waters: a game of spy and counter-spy, agents and double-agents, stretching from Berlin to Lisbon to London; and the plight of an American soldier who finds himself accused of murder, and presumed guilty by his US masters largely on the basis of his colour. There’s clearly a lot here for DCI Merlin to unscramble.

The three strands are interwoven, with plenty of characters to pick up as the story kicks off. A dramatis personae at the beginning of the book might have helped. The action develops slowly at first, as the foundations of the narrative are laid, then picks up speed as the first death occurs, and the list of suspects grows. More deaths follow as the story heads to its final phase as DCI Merlin at last puts the pieces in order.

Surprisingly, although the war itself provides a stimulus for the action, and a motivation for some of the actors, it intrudes less than one might have expected, being more of an inconvenience than a constraint. Perhaps the point the author is making is that for the rich, the powerful and the criminal, it was largely business as usual. War offered new opportunities for the powerful to throw their weight around unhindered (as we see in the treatment of the victimised US serviceman), for the rich to make more money (through the dealings connected with the art works), and for the criminal to commit crimes unhindered by street lights or heavy policing (as the thief and the crime boss contemplate stealing the art works). Even the life of the wealthy seems unchanged: they go where they like, do what they like, and eat what they like, whilst the lesser mortals eat less, work more, and die for their masters. And as in peacetime, the spy game continues to be a game, albeit with a fatal edge.

Concentration is necessary to follow twists and turns, but it’s worth it for an illuminating and enjoyable read.

Allan Martin is a novelist and author of Death in Tallinn.