As long-time readers of my blog will be aware, I’m a big fan of Mark Ellis’ Frank Merlin series, which began with Stalin’s Gold, continued with Prince’s Gate, and moved on to Merlin At War, which is where we pick up from in the latest part of the saga, A Death In Mayfair.
Set slightly later in the Second World War, Ellis’ latest novel touches on Pearl Harbour, the cinema scene at the time and London’s gangs, who emerged during the Blitz and become key players in the city’s criminal underworld.
Like I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of historical crime fiction. Or at least I wasn’t, until I read Mark Ellis’ books.
Ever since I’ve come to look out for crime fiction novels set during the Second World War, although I’ve never found any other writer who can hold a candle to him in terms of characterisation, recreating war torn London and generally just keeping me hooked until the very end.
As such, I was excited to read this latest novel and find out what’s in store for Merlin and London, which plays as a big a role as any character in Ellis’ work.
We return to the tales of Frank Merlin, Scotland Yard’s finest, right after he becomes a father for the first time with his new wife, whom we’ve already met as his girlfriend in previous books.
Sonia and the baby are out of London visiting her parents, so readers get the Detective Chief Inspector all to ourselves. He’s just nabbed a couple of heavies from an important gang in a raid, but his good luck is interrupted when the powers that be order him to investigate the death of film star Laura Curzon.
This beautiful starlet had just returned from Hollywood when she fell to her death from the balcony of her flat. Merlin is ordered by on high to investigate, whilst also dealing with the corpse of a mystery young girl found in a bombed building who was strangled before being preserved in the ruins of the property.
The two cases quickly become connected, and in the course of his investigations Merlin and his team encounter everything from corrupt Hollywood bigwigs through to child prostitution, black mass and beyond.
Somehow, despite all of those interlinking ideas and various plot strands, Ellis masterfully keeps A Death In Mayfair’s readers hooked throughout. The plot moves at a quick pace, but it’s surprisingly easy to keep up with everything that’s going on.
One of the main reasons for this is Ellis’ exceptional characterisation, which is once again the defining feature of his work. Each character has been meticulously defined, but without dumping info on the reader all at once. Somehow you just connect with the characters, and that’s a rare achievement for a writer.
The only issue I have is with the dialogue, which in places is patchy. Other than that, the novel is enlightening and fascinating, showing readers a unique glimpse into war torn London at a time when relations in Asia and closer to home, in Germany, were strained and when Britain was blighted by rationing and other social problems.
It’s also a thrilling police procedural, with Merlin and his ever-intrepid team working doggedly to uncover several mysteries, all of which quickly intertwine to become one big tangle of criminality, debt, drugs and general debauchery.
To summarise, if you’re looking for an enticing novel to get you through the bleakness of the end of an English winter, then look no further than A Death In Mayfair. Mark Ellis has once again created an intriguing mystery that will have you hooked.