I write a detective fiction series set in World War II Britain. My lead character, Detective Chief Inspector Frank Merlin, is a tough and experienced Scotland Yard police officer engaged in the grueling fight against crime in wartime London as his country battles heroically for its survival against Nazi Germany.
During the war, domestic crime in the U.K. grew substantially, rising by nearly 60 percent between 1939 and 1945. A number of factors lay behind that rise. These included the blackout, the chaos caused by the intensive German bombing, the introduction of rationing and other restrictions which gave rise to a booming black market, the growth of prostitution and vice as millions of young soldiers found themselves stationed on the Home Front, and the loss of large numbers of good policemen to the armed forces. This crime boom was one of the major factors for my choosing this period as my setting, along with a long-held keen interest in the history of the time.
When I began writing about Frank Merlin, I gave little thought to exactly what genre I was going to work in. If friends asked me at the outset what type of book I was writing, I told them it was a detective story. My favorite writer of “detective stories” then and now is Georges Simenon. His creation, Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris Sûreté, remains my favorite fictional detective.
One friend, when I told him that Merlin was intended to be my Maigret, said I was writing a “police procedural.” Others used words like “mystery,” “suspense,” “thriller,” and “whodunit,” all of which could apply. However, no one chose the description “historical fiction,” although my books clearly fall into that category too.
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So, as I undertook my first book, I was conscious of working in two genres—detective fiction (or crime fiction, or any of the other alternative descriptions above) and historical fiction.
Was there any complication involved in straddling two genres? I can’t say I found there to be. Apart from the obvious requirement to make one’s stories gripping and entertaining, there is one most important imperative applicable to historical fiction: Get your facts right. Authenticity is of crucial importance. The comparable imperative applicable to detective fiction is to make sure the story is credible.
Inevitably, the research required for both imperatives gets intermingled. One feature of my books is that each chapter is set on a particular day in the War. If I mention a speech given by Churchill in a chapter, do I have the day right? If Merlin is talking about the speech to a colleague on the same day, would he have been able to learn about it that day and if so, how? If, as he talks to his colleague he is wearing a sodden raincoat, did it actually rain on that day? And so on.
I intensively research the policing practices, the criminal environment and the overall period detail, including the progress of the war, for my books. My first, Princes Gate, is set in January 1940, the time known as The Phoney War. The action in Stalin’s Gold, the second, takes place in September, against the background of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Merlin At War, just published, is set in June 1941, just after the Battle of Crete and just before the Nazi invasion of Russia.
Almost inevitably, as my historical knowledge of the war period has progressed, I have been diverted into the genre or sub-genre of espionage. That’s my third genre—or perhaps I should say my fourth, after romantic fiction, as a little love is allowed to blossom in the pages of my books, too!
All three of my books have some element of security skullduggery, but the new book, Merlin At War, has a major plot line about the leaking of Allied secrets from De Gaulle’s Free French forces in London to the German supported French puppet government in Vichy. An espionage plot line, by its very nature, is effective in introducing mystery and suspense, as the master of the genre, Le Carré, demonstrates time and time again. Who is the spy? Why is he spying? How does he pass his information on and who are his controllers? Who else is compromised?
However, does it require a different writing approach? Not that I am aware. The key thing with every genre is to set the story in a credible, reimagined world, on the basis of well-researched historical and methodological facts. Then apply the one thing essential for all books: Imagination!
Mark Ellis is a thriller writer from Swansea and a former barrister and entrepreneur. 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, skillfully blended with gripping plots, political intrigue and a charismatic protagonist. His most recent novel is Merlin at War.
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