Meet the Author: Mark Ellis
I am delighted to welcome crime and thriller writer, Mark Ellis to the blog today. Mark is the author of the acclaimed DCI Frank Merlin novel series, Princes Gate, Stalin’s Gold, Merlin at War, and most recently, A Death in Mayfair which was published by Headline in November 2019.
Hello Mark, would you like to start by telling us a little about yourself and how you started as a writer?
I am the author of a series of crime thrillers featuring Frank Merlin, a Scotland Yard detective in World War Two London. So far there are four Merlin books and a fifth is on the way. My aim is to write about Merlin’s adventures from the beginning of the war to the end. The action in the first book of the series, Princes Gate, takes place in January 1940 and the succeeding books follow at roughly six to nine month intervals. A Death In Mayfair, the most recently published, is set in December 1941, the month of Pearl Harbour.
I come from Swansea though now I live in London. I have had careers as a barrister, corporate executive and entrepreneur. I wanted to write books from an early age but for a long time the demands of my various careers got in the way. I finally got round to writing seriously in my 50s, after the computer company I’d started and built up with a friend was bought by an American company. Suddenly I had free time and I realised it was now or never if I wanted to realise my childhood ambition. I spent a few years working on the manuscript of Princes Gate, and finally got it published in 2011. Since then I have been a full-time writer.
What is it about the historical crime thriller genre which attracts you and, in particular, the Second World War?
I enjoy all sorts of books but particularly love history and crime. Naturally this makes the idea of writing historical crime fiction very appealing. In deciding what to write about I have been influenced by family history. My father died a relatively young man after a long illness arising from wartime service in Africa. I was only seven when he died and the reasons behind his death made me keen to learn more about the war. As I read about it I developed a particular interest in the Home Front, where people tried to live normal lives against the background of the nation’s epic battle for survival. My mother told me about her wartime experiences, including fascinating tales of a blitzed Swansea in flames and life in London under the bombs and Doodlebugs. When I came to consider the period for my books, it seemed inevitable that I would favour the war. My decision crystallised when I realised that crime boomed in wartime Britain and that it would be a great period in which to set a detective series.
A Death In Mayfair is the latest in your DCI Frank Merlin series. Would you like to tell us a little about it, without giving out any spoilers.
A Death In Mayfair is set against a background of the British wartime film industry. During my researches, I discovered that at the beginning of the war there were as many as fifteen film studios in and around London. I read further and realised how important the cinema was to people in the war, both as a means of escapism and in terms of raising morale. I thought it would be an interesting setting for a Merlin story. I created a fictional film studio by the Thames and populated it with fictional producers, directors and movie stars. Then I invented some deaths for Merlin to investigate. There are two in this book, one of a glamorous film actress, and the other of a teenage girl who has fallen into bad company.
What or who was the inspiration for your main character of DCI Frank Merlin. Is he based on anyone you know?
Originally my hero was going to be an out and out Cockney Londoner with a different name. However, while on holiday in Spain, I wondered about making his background a little more exotic. Why not give him some sort of Spanish background, I thought. I decided to give him a Spanish father and an English mother. Then I had to think of the father’s name. I read an article about, of all things, Spanish Merino sheep. I liked the sound of the name ‘Merino’ and appropriated it. The father became Javier Merino. I made him a merchant seaman from Northern Spain who pitched up in the port of London, fell in love with local chandler’s daughter Agnes Cutler, married her then settled down in the East End docklands. A first son came along and they called him Francisco. When his father decided to Anglicise the family’s names, so Francisco Merino became Frank Merlin.
As regards looks, without initially realising it, I made Merlin look very much like my father, who was (unlike me) lean, tall, dark and handsome. His character too, brave, patient and determined, also owes much to what I know of my father.
If A Death In Mayfair was to be turned into a film, who would you like to play the part of DCI Frank Merlin?
I am often asked this question and, as the books are set in the 40s my mind first goes, unhelpfully, to classic film actors of the period. People like Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Ray Milland and James Mason. Turning to actors who are actually alive, I think David Tennant would make a good Merlin. In Hollywood, Christian Bale comes to mind, and Robert J Downey can do a good English accent. Tom Cruise is too small but then again, that didn’t stop him playing Jack Reacher! As it happens I have received some television interest in Merlin.
How do I go about researching the period detail?
Before I start writing a new book I spend about three months researching the specific period. Thus for Princes Gate it was January 1940, for Stalin’s Gold September 1940, Merlin At War June 1941, and A Death In Mayfair December 1941. My research for the new fifth Merlin book has been focussed on August 1942. For period detail I rely on books, the internet and travel. In the early days of my writing career Iibraries were of great importance to me, but they are less so now as the amount of information available on the internet has grown so massively. I have also built up a sizeable wartime book collection of my own. It includes several excellent histories of the Home Front, wartime diaries, memoirs, biographies and works of period fiction. I also travel around London to check I have location details right, and occasionally abroad if there are foreign scenes eg Warsaw and Moscow.
Do you have 3 words which would sum up the Home front during the war?
The words that most immediately come to mind are those of Churchill’s famous motto (excuse the language): ‘Keep Buggering On!’. I suppose they might apply equally to the difficult circumstances we are currently living through.
Thanks so much, Mark for that great insight into creating your historical thrillers!
A Death in Mayfair
( The DCI Frank Merlin Series Book 4)
December 1941. Japanese planes swoop down and attack Pearl Harbour. America enters the war and Britain no longer stands alone against Hitler. But conditions on the home front remain bleak, and for Scotland Yard detective Frank Merlin, life is as arduous as ever. He is diverted from his tenacious campaign against London’s organised criminal gangs by the violent deaths of two young women in the centre of the city. Merlin investigates and encounters fraudulent film moguls, dissipated movie stars, mad Satanists, and brutal gangsters amongst others as he and his team battle to uncover the connections and search out the truth.
Book link: Amazon UK
About the Author
Mark Ellis is a thriller writer from Swansea and a former barrister. He is the creator of DCI Frank Merlin, an Anglo-Spanish police detective operating in World War 2 London. His books treat the reader to a vivid portrait of London during the war.
Mark grew up under the shadow of his parents’ experience of the Second World War. He has always been fascinated by the fact that while the nation was engaged in a heroic endeavour, crime flourished. His father served in the wartime navy and died a young man. His mother told him stories of watching the heavy bombardment of Swansea from the safe vantage point of a hill in Llanelli, and of attending tea dances in wartime London under the bombs and doodlebugs.
In consequence Mark has always been fascinated by WW2 and in particular the Home Front and the fact that while the nation was engaged in a heroic endeavour, crime flourished. Murder, robbery, theft and rape were rife and the Blitz provided scope for widespread looting.This was an intriguing, harsh and cruel world. This is the world of DCI Frank Merlin.
Mark Ellis’ books regularly appear in the Kindle bestseller charts. He is a member of the Crime Writers Association (CWA). His most recent book, Merlin at War, was on the CWA Historical Dagger Longlist in 2018. A Death in Mayfair was published in November 2019