Adrian Magson is the author of 20 crime and spy thrillers, including the Harry Tate series, the Lucas Rocco series and the Marc Portman series. His latest books are ‘The Locker’ (Midnight Ink - Feb 2016) the first in a new thriller series, and ‘Hard Cover’ (Severn House - March 2016), the third of his Marc Portman novels.
The world of Detective Chief Inspector Frank Merlin, of the Metropolitan Police seems, on the surface, little different to any other policeman in this, Mark Ellis’s first of a series. Detectives solve crimes, and their private lives count for little when it comes to performing their duty.
But Merlin is a little different. The year is 1940, and he’s frustrated by something not many fictional cops have to contend with: he’s not allowed to join in the war effort. This doesn’t help his frame of mind, as he served in the previous conflict and feels left out, even though his boss gives him a whole range of problems he has to cope with, from Irish Republican bombers through Mosleyite fifth columnists all the way down to bad driving in the blackout.
He also has an addiction to Fisherman’s Friends, which I recall as a boy being told you could get hooked on because of the ether. And he’s the London-born son of a Spanish shepherd’s son turned chandler.
Fortunately, Ellis is a skilled enough writer not to let these facts get in the way of a good story, but merely to add to Merlin’s character. Faced with the brutal murders of young women of previously good repute, Merlin and his sidekick, Sgt Bridges, are dragged into an investigation involving sleazy clubs, sleazier owners and criminals… and the American Ambassador and potential presidential candidate, one Joseph P Kennedy.
Following a trail of contacts like breadcrumbs, Merlin moves in on members of the Ambassador’s staff, diggings into the background of drivers, typists, middle managers… and one American Diplomat with no obvious portfolio other than being there and being fairly unpleasant. That his presence is tolerated by the staff is a puzzle, but so is the attitude of the Ambassador, who is spitefully anti-British and thinks Britain is going to get slam-dunked if they try standing up to the Germans, and is vociferously opposed to giving any help. He’s also not helpful with the investigation, and decides to stay in Florida and continue to undermine the pro-British element within the US government.
The strength of this story is in the characterisation, and Mark Ellis clearly enjoys writing about criminals and sleaze balls of all levels who are out for their own ends and don’t give a stuff about the war. Set in London, in January 1940, we are quickly propelled into the atmosphere and feel of desperation: ‘A pungent fug of cigarette smoke, stewing vegetables and body odour hung above the crowded, clattering tables……’
We can smell the sweat under the arms of the men, and the stale perfume of naïve girls in the nightclubs; we can see the unshaven chins and the venal eyes of the club owner, Morrie Owen; we can even share the fear as a plane passes high over the darkened streets and the instinct is to duck into an air-raid shelter, until someone recognises the drone of the engine as ‘one of ours’.
But we also get a clear idea of Frank Merlin, too. Treading a potentially career-damaging path between politicians and police work, profiteering criminals and self-interested members of the upper classes, he is relentless as he closes in without wasted drama on those he thinks are responsible for the growing list of murders.
Merlin is a magical name for a cop, but Ellis doesn’t kid us by giving him any special forces. He’s an investigator of the old school, when technology as we now know it didn’t exist, and when catching the crooks was down to gut feel, procedure and persistence.
An interesting character and era, and I’d like to read more.
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