Mark Ellis explores crime on the home front, when you might have thought world war would be enough for people to cope with.
I am a Swansea boy. During World War II, the importance of Swansea’s industry and docks made the town a major target for the Luftwaffe. Between 1940 and 1943, Swansea was the target of 44 raids with 340 people killed, thousands injured and massive destruction of property, including most of the town centre.
My mother, fifteen at the outbreak of the war, lived with her family on the heights of the Bigyn in Llanelli. From the back of the house there was a clear view across the Loughor Estuary and the Gower towards Swansea. She told me how the family would gather in the garden on raid nights and watch in horror the macabre spectacle in the distance as the bombs rained down and Swansea burned. I found such personal experiences of the war riveting.
Another of my mother’s tales was of weekend trips up to London later in the war. As a railway worker she had the use of free train passes and would regularly travel up to London with her friends to sightsee and go out on the town, treating the doodlebugs and other perils of the wartime capital with nonchalant disdain. There were other family tales, the hardest of which concerned my father who served in the Navy in the war. He contracted a wasting lung disease while on duty in Africa and eventually died from it when I was a young boy. For this reason alone of course, the war loomed large in my life from an early age. As I became older I became fascinated by World War II history and by the way people coped and lived during the period.
I grew up in Mumbles, attending local schools in Swansea before going to Llandovery College. I was always an avid reader and eventually began to harbour thoughts of writing books myself. An English teacher encouraged me to think that my writing had promise and I attempted a novel and wrote some short stories. Any idea of a literary career soon disappeared, however, as I went off into the real world to become a barrister and then a businessman.
Many years passed. In my fifties I was running a computer services business which I had successfully started and built up with a partner. A buyer approached us and we agreed to sell. The minute the transaction was completed I had only one thought – to resurrect that childhood ambition of becoming an author. But an author of what? I decided to try to write a series of historical detective thrillers and there could only be one historical setting for me – I created DCI Frank Merlin, a Scotland Yard detective operating in wartime London.
One of the things I find particularly intriguing about the Home Front during the war is that while the nation was engaged in its heroic life or death battle, crime flourished and murder, robbery, theft and rape were rife. Reported crime between 1939 and 1945 grew massively. Factors such as the blackout, the chaos caused by the bombs, the booming black market in restricted foods and products all contributed to making the Home Front in wartime Britain a criminal’s paradise – and a wonderful canvas for a crime writer.
In terms of method, it took me a while to establish a writing routine which suited me. Eventually I settled to a regime which I now know is favoured by a good few writers – creative work for three or four hours each morning and editing and research in the afternoon. I undertake considerable historical research for the books. Every chapter is set on an actual calendar day in the 40s and I need to burrow deep into original sources and the extensive war literature to do my job properly. Merlin investigates his cases against a background which I hope presents an accurate portrayal of the progress of the war, and of the living conditions and personalities of the time.
I enjoy introducing real people into the stories. My last book, Merlin At War was set in June 1941, just after the Battle of Crete and in the month of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. The cast, as well as featuring fictional murderers, spies and fraudsters includes Churchill, De Gaulle, and Marshal Petain. My earlier books are set in January 1940, the Phoney War period, and September 1940, with a backdrop of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Each has a similar mix of real and fictional characters. The action of my next book, the fourth in the series, takes place in December 1941, around the time of Pearl Harbour. Merlin investigates the violent deaths of two young women. As the blurb has it ‘he encounters fraudulent film moguls, dissipated movie stars, mad Satanists and brutal gangsters as he and his team battle to search out the truth’. It is being published on November 21 this year. The series will continue and my plan is to follow Merlin’s adventures right through to the end of the war. At the present historical pace of the series, with each book set 6 to 9 months after its predecessor, this should keep me busy for some time!