By Mark Ellis
Editor’s note: Mark shares great tips on how he works on his detective series. Some key takeaways that apply to every writer when doing research include:
The internet is a great starting point and useful for specific details, like the weather on a particular day
To dig deeper, history books, biographies, and diaries are helpful, as are novels written during or shortly after a specific period of time, such as a war
If possible, try to visit specific locations to make sure you correctly identify key details
I write a detective series set in World War Two London. So far there are five books in the series and I am currently working on the sixth. The series features Detective Chief Inspector Frank Merlin who is based at Old Scotland Yard, the main London police headquarters during the war. The books so far in the series have followed Merlin’s crime adventures from January 1940 (Frank Merlin 1: Princes Gate now retitled The Embassy Murders*) to August 1943 (Frank Merlin 5: Dead In The Water). The as yet untitled Frank Merlin 6 will be set in the spring of 1943. (*Please note the titles of my first three books have recently been changed.)
I take great care to maintain historical accuracy in my books. While the crimes Merlin investigates are purely fictional, they all take place against a background of real historic events and I try to make sure that background is presented correctly. In addition real historical figures often feature in the books and I endeavour to represent them as fairly as I can while also ensuring that their presence in the story is practically feasible.
I touch upon a wide range of historical events and developments in my books. The first in the series concerns murders at the American Embassy. The Ambassador at the beginning of 1940 was Joseph Kennedy who was a prominent appeaser. He thought the British had no hope of winning against Hitler and should come to terms with Germany. Many prominent British people thought the same and Merlin‘s murder investigations take place against this political background.
My second book (now titled In The Shadows Of The Blitz) takes place in September 1940, as London begins to suffer from mass German bombing. Book 3 (now The French Spy) is set in June 1941 and the murder story is entwined with a tale of spying among De Gaulle’s Free French in London. A Death In Mayfair (Frank Merlin 4) is set in December 1941, around the time of Japan’s Pearl Harbour attack, and involves the wartime British film industry. The latest book, Dead In The Water, is set in the summer of 1942 against the background of the arrival of American military forces in Britain.
How do I go about my research? With the earlier books, when the internet was less developed, I used to spend a good deal of time in London libraries. Particularly useful was the Public Records Office in Kew, where I used to pore for hours over its comprehensive files of wartime newspapers. These were a great source of plot ideas.
Over time I acquired my own personal collection of war history books, and with access to these and the development of the internet, my library visits have diminished. The internet is a fantastic source of information. If I want to find what the London weather was like on a particular June morning in Westminster, the internet can tell me. If I want to find out which RAF squadrons were in the air on a particular day of the London Blitz, I can Google it. If I need to discover what shows were on at a West End theatre on a particular evening in 1941, the internet can tell me.
However, the internet can’t tell me everything. For a broader perspective I have my own wartime library. I have general histories of the war, specific histories of the impact of the war on London and the Home Front, as well as biographies of the main figures in the war. I also find diaries very useful. These can range from the military diaries of people like Field Marshal Alan Brook, to the more social diaries of Chips Channon and Harold Nicholson.
I also like reading novels written during or shortly after the war to get a sense of atmosphere. Classic novels like The End of The Affair by Graham Greene, The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen, and Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh provide very helpful descriptions of wartime life.
Notwithstanding the internet and books, it is sometimes very hard to find out fairly simple day to day things. For example, in one of my books I had a character arriving at a block of flats. Was there the technology at the time to allow him to press an external flat bell or buzzer to gain entrance? (There was.) Or how did one go about making an international telephone call and what countries still had telephone communication lines open. (More than you’d think.) And so on.
One other aspect of getting things right, of course, is location. The majority of the Merlin books take place in London and I know the city very well. However I still generally make a point of visiting key locations myself. In my new book, Dead In The Water, a good deal of the action takes place in Chelsea, where I once lived.
I had originally written something about an area of riverside there which I didn’t think I needed to check. The description was key to the plot and luckily I changed my mind and went to the area and was able to find out I’d got things wrong. There are some foreign locations in the books and in the past I’ve been able to make useful research visits to places like Warsaw, Paris, and Moscow. Visits abroad were, of course, generally impossible during the pandemic, and I had to turn to Google Earth, which proved a handy if more limited substitute.
Determined as I am to achieve historical accuracy in my own works, I am irritated when I find examples of inaccuracy in other people’s books or films. In an otherwise excellent recent film about Churchill, starring Gary Oldman, the Prime Minister was shown taking an Underground train and discussing the war with other passengers. The scene was moving, but the fact is that Churchill never travelled on public transport in his life and I found the misrepresentation annoying.
As mentioned above, I am now writing the sixth Frank Merlin book and am immersed in a whole new range of historical research. It’s a good thing I enjoy it so much!
Dead In the Water is being published in paperback for the first time in the US on April 25.
Mark Ellis is a thriller writer from Swansea and a former barrister and entrepreneur. His books treat the reader to a vivid portrait of London during the war skillfully blended with gripping plots, political intrigue and a charismatic protagonist. Mark grew up under the shadow of his parents’ experience of the Second World War. 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 endeavor, 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. Learn more at markellisauthor.com.