Friday, April 28, 2023

Q&A with Mark Ellis




Mark Ellis is the author of the new novel Dead in the Water, the fifth in his DCI Frank Merlin series. The books are set during World War II. A former barrister and entrepreneur, he is from Swansea, Wales.


Q: This is the fifth in your series about DCI Frank Merlin. Do you think he’s changed over the course of the series?


A: I got into trouble at a book event the other day when, in answering a similar question, I went into more detail than I should have with regard to developments in Merlin’s personal life over the span of the books. “Too many spoilers” I was quite correctly admonished.


Thus I’ll confine myself here to answering that he is personally happier in the fifth book than he was in the first. Physically he has a few more grey hairs but retains his lean good looks. In terms of his job he remains implacably determined to bring wartime criminals to book.


Q: What inspired the plot of Dead In The Water?


A: I have got into the habit of setting each Merlin story eight or nine months after the last. Thus the period of any new book is in a way predetermined. The story of A Death In Mayfair, Dead In The Water’s immediate predecessor, takes place in December 1941 so I set the new book in August 1942.


Once I know the period, I intensively research it and very often my research gives me plot ideas.


By August 1942 there were thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel in Britain after America’s entry into the war. In that month, I discovered, Parliament passed a law giving the American military authorities full jurisdiction over any crimes alleged against US military personnel.


This gave me an idea for one of the main plot lines in the book in which Merlin has one of his cases taken from him by American military police. Another main plot line concerns art stolen from Jewish people before and during the war. I learned about this from a variety of historical sources.


It is interesting to note that this is very much a live subject today, with a looted Kandinsky painting being sold at auction the other day by a Jewish family to whom it had recently been restored.

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?


A: I have built up quite a large collection of books relating to World War Two which I consult. General histories, specific histories, biographies, diaries, and novels of the period. The internet is also a fantastic source of information. And there are plenty of good libraries in London.


The legislation relating to American legal jurisdiction mentioned above was a surprise to me as was the scale of racial prejudice among the American troops.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make changes along the way?


A: No I didn’t and I never do know. I do not plan the plots of my books in advance. As already mentioned I know the exact period of the book, I have my established police characters and I usually have several general plot ideas picked up from my research, then I kick off and see where my pen, or rather my iPad keyboard, takes me.


I am usually three quarters of the way through the book before I turn my mind to resolving the various plot lines I have set running.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on the as yet untitled sixth Merlin book, which is set in May 1943. So far I have written over 40,000 words. My normal practice is to complete a first draft without stopping to edit along the way. Once I have that first draft the editing begins.


With Dead In The Water there was a first draft of 200,000 words which after something like 20 edits I cut down to 110,000 words before submitting it to my publishers.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have just written my first Frank Merlin short story, which will be published later this year in a collection of World War Two stories being put together by the British Aspects of History magazine.


Many people say that the Frank Merlin books are ripe for film or TV adaptation. I have had a number of approaches regarding this, including one from the BBC, but nothing as yet has crystallised. I’d love to see Frank Merlin on the big or little screen. Dead In The Water is being published in paperback for the first time in the US on April 25.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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