As a rule, historical novels aren’t my thing, but I was intrigued by the concept of Mark Ellis’s Merlin at War, which I first encountered when I interviewed him for a blog tour recently. Set during the Second World War, the novel follows the exploits of detective Frank Merlin, who works to solve the numerous crimes that abound despite the escalating global violence.
The crimes in question are various but all, coincidentally, connected. First, the body of a young Irish woman who died as the result of a botched abortion is investigated; later, the abortionist himself is found killed at his boarding house. Merlin, who also has to deal with the bureaucracy of having one member of staff removed for fraternisation and replaced by an American, takes on both cases simultaneously.
Later, his friend, having just returned from fighting in Crete, visits him with a small problem, on which Merlin advises. Shortly afterwards this friend is also murdered, and so the detective and his team come up against corporate deception as they unravel his problem, which is linked to a case of embezzlement in a massive international bank.
History never has been my strong point, and as such I am not entirely certain if the depictions of the various historical figures in Merlin at War are even remotely accurate, but the characterisation overall is excellent. Everyone, from the snobbish bank employees through to Machiavellian officers in the various military and security services, are superbly depicted, with the dialogue carefully catered to their personalities to ensure both consistency and realism. Seedy, untrustworthy men are Ellis’s strongpoint and he does them well, with numerous characters from across the story portrayed with such skill that they make your skin crawl.
The novel flits around the world, from depictions of the Creation retreat to intrigue-ridden Buenos Aires, but it is London where the majority of the action takes place, and the city is bought to life thanks to Ellis’s stunning depictions. His seamless integration of setting into the narrative entices the reader and draws them further into this fascinating story.
As I mentioned, I have never been a big history buff, but I truly enjoyed Merlin at War. The one small issue I have is that I’m not entirely sure that attitudes in 1940s London would have been so relaxed, and as such the lack of prejudice on all fronts feels slightly unrealistic. Bernie Goldberg, the American detective who is placed with Merlin’s team, as well as the various other foreigner characters the reader encounters throughout the novel, seem to face very little racial backlash despite the hostile military situation and the general ignorance of and distrust towards other races that abounded at that time. I also find it incredibly hard to believe that widowed Merlin’s unmarried relations with his Polish girlfriend Sonia, who lives in his flat, would be tolerated so easily, with even the uptight Assistant Commissioner and his wife welcoming the unconventional couple with open arms.
Incorporating a wide variety of genres, including detective fiction, thriller, espionage and historical novel, Merlin at War is a truly spellbinding page turner that keeps you hooked right until the end.