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Mark Ellis’s World War II London is a place where crime flourishes alongside the heroism of firefighters and fighter pilots and his charismatic Detective Frank Merlin deals with rapists, and racketeers amidst the carnage of falling bombs..
Hi there I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Mark talks about one of the best kept secrets of wartime Britain – how the Blackout and the Blitz led to a 60 per cent surge in crime all over the land.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- Mark’s fascination with wartime London
- The Blackout Crime Wave noone talked about
- What attracted Mark to historical thrillers
- How his writing method had evolved
- The authors he likes to binge read
- The secret to his writing success – and it’s one anyone can copy
What follows is a “near as” transcript of the conversation in full with links to many of the key books and events discussed.
Where to find Mark Ellis
Personal page: https://www.facebook.com/mark.ellis.794
Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/MarkEllisAuthor/
Jenny: But now, here’s Mark. Hello there Mark and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Mark: Great to be with you Jenny
Jenny: I like to start off at the beginning – the best place to start – and that is – was there a “Once Upon A Time” moment when you realised you had to write fiction or your life would be the lesser for it? If so what was the catalyst?
Mark: I wouldn’t put it that way. I think when I was young I was a voracious reader and after going through various childish ambitions like wanting to be a cowboy or a comedian or something like that I did have an ambition to be a writer.
And I wrote in school and then in college and did get compliments from various people that I might have some potential. However, I went to do law in Cambridge, I became a barrister and very quickly life took over.
For a brief while when I was a barrister I used to try and get up at 6 in the morning and write and I wrote about half a novel, but then it just became too much for me. And then after being a barrister I went into business for other people and then for myself.
The moment when I knew I had to do it – and would be able to do it eventually – was when I had a computer company with a partner and we sold it and that’s when I realised “if i don’t do it now I will never do it.” that’s when I started. That was about ten years ago.
Jenny: The first novel in your Frank Merlin World War II series was Princes Gate. Was that also the first one you wrote or were there others before it?
Mark: Yes it was the first one I ever completed. I had attempts at others that I never finished.
Jenny: So how did you settle on the historical crime/mystery genre as the area you wanted to work in?
Mark: I do read all sorts of genre but I suppose when you are working hard in a business career you want to have something light to read – it takes your mind off things. I always found crime particularly good at that – crime books – and at the same time I have always had a fascination for history so when I had the time to write and decided to write – I gave it a hard think as well.
Historical crime is a growing and increasingly popular area, and I must admit I wanted to fulfil myself artistically but the idea of making money was not completely irrelevant so I thought I might have better sales but also this was really that context which attracted me and for which I had ideas.
Jenny: What specifically attracted you to World War II?
Mark: My parents both lived through the war, my father was in the navy and served abroad in various places like Africa, and my mother was a teenager at the beginning of the war and just got her first job during the war.
She was a secretary in the local railway office – that’s where she met my father after the war. And she used to tell me these stories – like many railway employees throughout the world I think one of the perks they got these free rail passes and they used to go up to London to these tea dances and other entertainment..
They could stay very cheaply in a railway hotel and I would listen to these stories and say “But wasn’t London being bombed at that time?” and she said “Oh yes, but we didn’t worry about that! That intrigued me. I became fascinated with the idea of ordinary life going on in the war and of course that included crime…
The people in London and Britain – for propaganda reasons during the war and for some time after – were presented as rather saintly people but of course people are not that saintly and I was intrigued to learn about and then to write about how people got in in the war and I chose to do that in the context of a police officer investigating mysteries.
Jenny: Yes and I must say it was news to me. I had taken on board that heroic idea of the Londoners in the blitz and them all helping one another. I am sure that did happen as well but I hadn’t heard about the surge in crime until I started reading your series.
Mark: Obviously there were saintly heroic people – ranging from Churchill at the top to ordinary people and firemen and policemen who were heroic – but there were plenty who weren’t. And indeed as you mentioned I hadn’t known this until I started researching the first book and then I discovered that between 1939 and 1945 crime boomed by 60 per cent in Britain – that’s in all sorts of areas – violent crime, theft and looting, black marketeering, gang related warfare – everything But when you think about it, it’s not that surprising.
First of all we had the Blackout – and for those who don’t realise what that meant – there was no light in any cities or town to make the Luftwaffe’s task of bombing more difficult. And then we had rationing and rationing inevitably gave rise to a black market and the criminals got involved in the black market and one had a whole new bunch of crimes related to the rationing.
And of course the police were stretched; some policemen did go off to join the army, Merlin, my character does try to join up but he is told he is too old and he has to stay around to battle the villains, and obviously you had the Blitz and they were distracted by that and the Blitz itself gave rise to a lot of crime.
When I give talks about this people are always shocked when I say looting was rife and not just looting by criminals but by ordinary people and even by firemen and air raid wardens and whatever… So it’s a very fecund area for stories about crime. When the popular Cafe de Paris was bombed in 1941, rescuers had to battle their way through looters that were fighting to tear rings and other jewellery from the dead revellers.
Jenny: You have got three books published in this series now. You must be enjoying a sense of achievement to have been selected as one of the “Must Read Top 100 Books for 2017” in the Kirkus Review, a prominent American review authority. Not only do they praise the plotting, but they compliment you on your historical research as well.
Mark: – Well yes and yes!! Of course with my first book, being the first one, I didn’t really know what my method was. My method evolved as I wrote more, and now I’m in my fourth book I can say “My method is . such and such . . I’ve evolved a method.
“I usually do a couple of months of research, and often that research gives me the idea for the story – as you know but your listeners may not know, each of my books is set in a specific period and I am taking Frank Merlin through the war.
So the first book is set in January 1940, during the “Phoney War period.” The second, Stalin’s Gold, is set in September 1940 which is the Battle of Britain and the start of the Blitz, while Merlin’s War, the third one, is set in June 1941 which is the just after the battle for Crete and just before Hitler invaded Russia.
The new one I am working on now – the fourth one, is set in September 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. So I read around the history. I have just read as book called December 1941 which is a wonderful book which explains everything that went on militarily, and then I read lots of social histories and there are some very good ones set in London and Britain. I don’t really have the plot in my mind at the beginning, I have all this historical fact sitting there and I kick off from that and the ideas come to me.
Jenny: Yes and each time you have a fascinating central core that has got the kernels of history embedded. In the first book, Joseph Kennedy as the American ambassador to Britain and his attitude to the war the way he tried to influence public opinion . . .
And then in the second book you make quite a feature of the consignment of Spanish gold that Stalin got his hands on. Each time there is a historical nub for the story.
Mark: Yes, and sometimes it comes out of nowhere. In the case of Stalin’s Gold I wanted to write something about the famous Polish squadron in the RAF (Royal Air Force) in the war which was very successful in destroying German planes and I was interested in somehow bringing them into the story.
I went to Poland to do some research and I hadn’t really picked up on the gold item and one day I was in the library a bit stuck. I picked up a history of Spain and heard the true story that when Stalin was supporting the anti Franco people – the left wing – in the Spanish Civil War – in which he provided military help.
He said to them “You aren’t giving me anything for this – I would like to look after your gold for you.” Of course Spain, with its history, had huge reserves of gold and gold was shipped to him. Then I read also in a footnote and this might be a bit esoteric for some listeners – but part of the story is about the theft of some of this gold. I found in a footnote that when this gold was shipped from Spain to Russia there was a error in the manifest – a certain amount was shipped and a certain amount arrived and there was a discrepancy and that gave me the idea of someone stealing that gold.
Jenny: Tell me do you think your previous career as a lawyer and businessman has given you any advantages as a writer?
Mark: In Merlin At War, one of the characters is a shady businessman and that reflects some of the shady characters I have met in my business life, and also there are some technical points about business that were helpful to know about. I think also being a lawyer, you are trained to think logically and I think that helps in developing a plot and keeping a lot of characters engaged.
Jenny: You alluded at the beginning to perhaps when you started writing 10 years ago historical mysteries weren’t quite as popular as they are now but this is a growing area in popularity and the World War II period is particular is enjoying a renaissance. What do you think the attraction is for people born after it of this period.
Mark: I remember when I was growing up – my father died unfortunately when I was rather young, and I grew up with my mother and grandparents. My grandfather had spent four years in the trenches in World War I and I never asked him anything about it, to my regret – but perhaps it was still a bit too close for him to talk about it.
I grew up in the 50’s and 10 or 20 years later I was fascinated by the topic, but he was no longer around to talk about it. In the same way there is a distance of time now with the Second World War most of the people who lived through it are dying, plus of course there are films – the umpteenth film with Churchill is coming out soon – it’s an absolutely fascinating period and people are getting hold of it – not just in England but also in America when I go there. I don’t know what its like in Australasia and New Zealand.
Jenny: There is interest, although perhaps one one of the other writers I’ve spoken to – MK Tod – (who writes World War I and II historicals) –
Mark: Yes I know her. I wrote a blog item for her blog magazine
Jenny: She was commenting that the Americans are much more interested in World War II because they played a big part in it, whereas the Commonwealth countries like Canada (where she is from) were also very involved in World War I so they are interested in both. Of course Australasians had the Anzacs so we tend to also give World War I more attention.
Mark: My latest book Merlin At War came out in the early summer in England and it came out in America in October and I’ve been there for a couple of book signings and talks and yes there is a lot of interest.
Jenny: Frank Merlin is also part Spanish – it’s an interesting little twist that gives an extra dimension to his character – what do people say they like about him?
Mark: A lot of people do find his background intriguing and that came to me out of the blue. I was on holiday in Spain and originally he was an out and out Cockney and I thought”Well this is a little bit boring.”
As I say I was in Spain and I know Spain quite well and I thought “Why not make him half Spanish? I did get the opportunity to give him the odd Spanish swear word and I have his back story which is quite interesting and it makes him a little more of a maverick in that sense and people like that fact that he is a bit of a maverick.
Jenny: Turning away from the specific books to more general discussion – Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Mark: It may be rather boring but the one thing that is essential to success in writing – probably most things actually – is perseverance, because it is quite difficult these days to get a book published. With my first book I went through a whole series of rejection slips or odd comments about the book which indicate that whoever is rejecting it hasn’t actually read much of it and like most writers you have to develop a bit of a thick skin.
I have been at this for ten years and now I am a published author and and I have sales around the world but it’s taken a lot of time to get there and I am very grateful that I got there because a lot of people don’t get there.
Jenny: Are you able to devote full time to it now or do you have other interests you still maintain?
Mark: No, no I can now work full time on my writing. I do have other interests to a minimal degree but my day revolves entirely around writing. I get up, I have a ten year old son, and I take him to school, and then after that I go and do a bit of exercise.
I write for four hours and then I have a break.. I usually find that’s about as much as I can do in creative writing – it can equate to one thousand two, three – and I think once I did 4000 words which is a heck of a lot to do in four hours. You have to sit down and give it the time, and some days you’ll be good and sometimes you’ll be bad. I continue to do my research as I go along because questions come to me and that’s my working day.
Jenny: You didn’t consider indie publishing?
Mark: Oh yes I did – that’s how I got started at the beginning. My first novel I couldn’t get published so I self-published with a very good firm in the UK and then I got taken up with a smaller publishing firm related to a public relations company and they republished my books.
Now I have a traditional publishing firm which is the largest publisher in Wales – which is nice because I am in Wales – and they’re publishing in the next few months the first three books again and they have also commissioned another three books by 2020.
So I’m going to be very busy because normally I take 18 months to two years to complete a book so I have to speed up a bit…
Jenny: If you were going to organise a literary “magical” mystery tour for your series, where would you Tripadvise people to go? What would you recommend? Places like Bletchley Park (the code breaking facility) for example?
Mark: Bletchley Park is well worth going to and also Churchill’s War Room is fascinating in Central London.
Also I’d suggest Ditchley Park – features in Merlin At War, which was a grand estate not far away from a house in Oxford owned by someone called Ronald Tree which Churchill used as his weekend place because security forces told him not to go to Chequers in Kent (the Prime Minister’s traditional weekend retreat) which it is in quite open country and it was too much of a target for the Luftwaffe.
On a broader level I do have an international scale for the books. In the beginning (Princes Gate, Book One) the only foreign action I have is Joe Kennedy sun bathing in Florida but in my second book there is action in Warsaw and Moscow and I went to both. That’s one of the good things about being a writer if you like to travel. It’s a justifiable expense to go – and there is a bit of action in Spain and in this recent book I’ve got Vichy, Paris, Buenos Aires, and New York – but the core of the stories is always about London.
I was asked to do an article for another blog called Trip Fiction. It basically supports writers and talks about people’s books but links it in to places – I had to go out and take a few pictures of London. Very briefly I took a picture of Merlin’s favourite pub and things like this and what I realised is that a lot of the London that was in the war – probably 80 per cent of it – is still there.
Yes there was a lot of terrible bombing and London after the war had a lot of bomb sites but all the core of my stories – the Houses of Parliament, the River Thames, Scotland Yard – it’s all still there.
Jenny: We’ll have to definitely put a link in the shownotes to that Trip Fiction blog because it sounds interesting.
Now just for a change of pace – Tell me – Is there a mystery in your own life that could be the plot line of a book?
Mark: I was involved a business career and I’ve touched on it a little bit earlier I came in touch with people who had their own mysteries and complicated business and personal lives which I think I have already been able to draw upon in my stories… In my own life I don’t think so. I haven’t murdered or burgled anyone yet nor has it happened to me… Obviously I’ve had the normal ups and downs in my personal life but fortunately but I have been a long way from the police station and crime
Jenny: Except when you were involved as a barrister . . .
Mark: Oh yes but it’s a long time since I did that now.
Jenny: Now turning to Mark as a reader: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” and it was partly inspired because people are asking for series to read more often… Have you ever in the past been a “binge reader” And if so, what did you read?
Mark: The very first thriller I read when I was about ten was The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan and of course there are others in that series including Greenmantle which actually features in a strange way in my plot in Merlin At War.
So I did binge read initially read all of John Buchan. Then more recently for a number of years I’ve been a great fan of Simenon and Maigret and I’ve read lots of them and I also liked and like Patricia Highsmith who wrote about Tom Ripley so I read binge read most of her books. And Graham Greene . . . There is a long long list. I think it’s a golden age for crime writing there are lots of wonderful writers about who I read a lot of… In america people like Michael Connelly, Robert Craise, Joe Finder and a lot of French writers now – I’m not sure if there any in New Zealand . . .
Jenny: I’m not so sure if there are many New Zealand genre writers – except in the romance area where there are some good ones – but there are some Australian mystery/crime thriller writers coming through and closer to home (for you) there’s a boom in Irish crime writing and particularly women crime writers.
Mark: Oh yes I have read some of them – not so much the women, but I’ve read John Banville who writes under the name of Benjamin Black. In Australia I believe something called The Dry (author Jane Harper) as the best book of the year as a thriller. I am reading some Jo Nesbo at the moment because obviously you’ve got the Scandinavians like Henning Mankell – although I am getting to the stage with Jo Nesbo where I’m not sure how many serial killers you can read about – but he is a very good writer.
Jenny: We are coming to the end of our time Mark, so circling back to the beginning. At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Mark: You know I’m not a great one for looking back and second guessing myself. Obviously I would have liked it if I could have got my first book published by a publishing company but come what may I went through the process and it eventually happened and I am very lucky because I think it’s a very small percentage of people who get commercially published these days.
Truthfully I can’t think of anything really. The one thing you do need with writing – you may have talent, you may have application, but you need a lot of luck. That’s the main thing and perhaps I didn’t have much luck in the first few years but I have had it in the last few.
Jenny: You’ve certainly been noticed by some influential writers and commentators – like the English historian Andrew Roberts who’s praised your work. You’ve come to notice in the publishing profession –
Mark: That again is a bit of luck. In the case of Andrew Roberts, I was asked through a friend to do a book signing with the Churchill Society in New York and Andrew Roberts was associated with that and I got to meet him and he had a look at the books and he really liked it and was happy to give me that sort of endorsement.
In a slightly different way with luck I met Joseph Finder though a friend who lives in Boston and again he took an interest in my books and was happy to have a look and give me an excellent endorsement and there are a few others as well, English writers as well.
You need that sort of luck. Of course you need to write the books because they are not going to do it unless they like it and now they have more publicity about the books I am hoping – might be a bit rich to say expecting – that some other people might notice me too…
Jenny: Of course What is next for Mark the writer – you have a six book deal – you will take Merlin right through the Second World War?
Mark: Yes my aim is to take him through the war.
The second book is nine months after the first, and one third book is nine months after the second one, and the next one is going to be closer in time because I couldn’t ignore December 1941 in the historical background – Pearl Harbor.
I am not sending Frank Merlin into Tokyo but it is there in the background and my aim is to keep going through in six to nine month periods. So the three book deal I have signed will only take me to 1943 so there may another three or four books if I don’t drop dead or something there is probably another seven books in the series, if I could do it.
Jenny: I was going to ask you if you saw a life beyond Merlin and turn to a more contemporary business environment but it sounds like Merlin is going to keep you busy for a few years yet
Mark: Yes it’s not as if I don’t have other book ideas – I do have other book ideas, but I think I am now on a trajectory and each book has become more popular than the last and I enjoy the process. I enjoy the characters and learning about each specific period. Maybe in a couple of years I will be bored and take time out and then go out and take time to go back to it but In legalistic terms I’m a bit of plodder.
I think part of being a lawyer is that you just keep at it. I think it’s likely I will follow Merlin all the way through and then tackle something else. I have other ideas I would like to have a go at but I will have to get to 1945 first.
Jenny: We are coming to the end, we really got one last question and that is, Where can readers find you on line?
Mark: Yes I’m fairly active online . . .
Website Mark Ellisauthor.com
Facebook – author and personal pages at:
Those are the main ones I am on and I am fairly active on social networking so people are more than welcome to look after any one of those.
Jenny: You appear to have quite a big following
Mark: Yes well I was completely new to it when I started writing, people were then interested in my books and I was told Mark you have to have a social network presence unlike many of my contemporaries because I am in my 60s I think I’m ahead of the game compared with many of those . . .
Jenny: Yes you seem to have as knack for it. Mark thanks so much for your time
It’s been a pleasure to talk to you
Mark: Thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure talking to you . . Brilliant. I’ll look forward to seeing and hearing it. . .
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