On this fine Sunday Mark Ellis talks me through his work, particularly the latest novel in his creative historical Crime Fiction series.
Tell me about how the books you write. What drew you to thriller writing?
I am the author of a detective mystery series set in World War 2 London and featuring Scotland Yard detective Frank Merlin. The plan is to follow Merlin through the war with books set at six to nine month intervals between 1940 and 1945. I have written three Merlin novels so far, including the latest, Merlin At War, which is out on July 6th. I have always been an avid reader with a particular fondness for detective fiction, mysteries and whodunits. It felt natural to commence my writing career in the thriller arena.
What was the first thriller novel you read and how did it draw you into seeking out more books of this genre?
The first adult thriller I read was The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan. I couldn’t put the book down and read it in a day. Of course I was keen to find more books that would grip me in this way.
What is your career background and how did you get into writing full time?
I studied law at university and became a barrister. After a short period in practice I went into business, first working for other people and then, in my thirties, for myself. With a friend I started a computer services company that grew into a multimillion pound enterprise and was eventually sold to a major American corporation. I had always had ambitions to write, and the sale of the business afforded me the time to give it a go.
Please tell me more about your books. Why do you believe that they have become so popular?
My books are detective thrillers set against what I hope is an accurate portrayal of the wartime background. My research is meticulous and I enjoy mixing real characters in with my fictional ones. Churchill, De Gaulle and Marshal Pétain are some of the historical figures that feature in my new book which is set in June 1941, just after the Battle of Crete and before Hitler’s invasion of Russia. My first book, Princes Gate, is set in January 1940, the so called ‘Phoney War’ period, and the second, Stalin’s Gold, is set in September 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain and in the early days of the Blitz. I believe some of the popularity of my books derives from the large and growing public fascination with British life during the war years.
How did you come to create DCI Frank Merlin and why do you believe readers enjoy reading about his exploits?
My family and I spend much holiday time in Spain. When I was trying to create the hero of my series, it occurred to me to give him a slightly exotic background as the son of a Spaniard. So, his father, Javier Merino, came into being as a Spanish sailor who had settled in London and married an English shopkeeper’s daughter in the East End. Tired of mispronunciation of his name he anglicised it to Harry Merlin. Likewise his children’s names were changed and his eldest boy, Francisco Merino, became Frank Merlin. Why do readers enjoy Merlin’s exploits? I hope their enjoyment owes something to quality of plot and characterisation, but I think the wartime conditions of Britain and its capital also have much to do with it. London in the war was a dangerous place not just because of dropping bombs. Recorded crime in the war years grew massively. The blackout, the chaos of the Blitz, the booming black market and other factors contributed to the city becoming a criminal’s paradise – or in other terms, a wonderful, broad and exciting canvas for a crime fiction writer.
Are there any particular mediums or narrative troupes you like to use in your writing and why?
One idiosyncrasy is that each chapter of my books is set on a specific day of the war. Thanks to the voluminous literature on the war as well as the wonders of the internet, I can find out the exact nature of the weather on any day, the numbers of bombs dropped or fighters in the air, and a myriad of other minor or major facts which add to the authenticity of the story.
What books/ authors do you enjoy reading and how does this influence your writing?
Favourite writers include Simenon, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Le Carré, Christie, Alan Furst, Michael Connelly, and William Boyd. I could go on and on, there are so many wonderful thriller writers alive or dead. In terms of influence, Simenon is an author I particularly admire. I love his direct, spare and simple style and bear him in mind when I feel my prose might be becoming a little overwrought. I have too many favourite books to list but if I confine myself to recent thrillers, I absolutely loved Don Winslow’s The Cartel and I have been devouring his other books
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
Of the dead authors, Simenon for reasons above. Of the living, Le Carré or Boyd as they are masters of their trade and within easy reach.
Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?
The next project is Merlin 4, which I shall start in September, after Merlin At War has been launched in the U.K. and I take a summer break. I do have one other book idea that I have been contemplating for some time. It is a spy/detective series set in the late 17th century featuring a character based loosely on Daniel Defoe, who was a spy himself as well as a brilliant author. How I make the time for this as I continue taking Merlin through to 1945, I am not quite sure.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to later in the year?
I am looking forward in particular to the new books from Le Carré, Winslow and Joseph Finder.
Do you have anything to add?
Thanks for having me!
Thanks for taking the time, Mark, it’s been a pleasure.