Sunday, July 06, 2014
Double Review: Princes Gate and Stalin's Gold by Mark Ellis
This very absorbing, top quality police procedural has a unique feature that lifts it above all others, in that it is set in a London of January 1940, with the backdrop of World War 2. The restrictions of the War, both in terms of rationing of food and other necessities of life and the limits on freedom of personal movement give an edge to this historical thriller that is difficult to quantify. DCI Frank Merlin and his team is called in from Scotland Yard to investigate the death of a woman employee of the USA Embassy, whose body is discovered floating in the River Thames. Also there is the suspicious death of a brilliant scientist who is killed by a hit and run driver.
The American Ambassador, is a certain gentleman named Joseph Kennedy, the true life father to the future President and is well known for his views of supporting conciliation with Hitler and in common with many influential Britons of negotiating a peace settlement to the European mainland war. Merlin is obliged to make enquiries with the staff of the Embassy in order to trace the background of the murdered girl and locate her killer. However, such investigations cause alarm with the Foreign Office who are very worried about any possible upset of Anglo/US relationships, as the US is likely to be a major source of armaments and other goods necessary for the future war effort.
Another death of an embassy employee causes further uproar and difficulties for Merlin from his superiors anxious not to upset American sensitivity in this very delicate area. But what can Frank Merlin do? He has an investigation to carry out and regrettably he may upset a few people as he needs to identify the killer before more deaths occur.
This exciting , very well plotted and historically evocative story drives forward to it's gripping conclusion. Frank Merlin is a lovely creation and totally convincing even down to the hole in his shoe. He is the English-born son of a Spanish migrant who decided to change his surname from 'Merino' to that of one of his favourite Arthurian legends. I lost myself in this thriller; this was a superb entertainment and I look forward to reading STALIN'S GOLD.
In December of 1938, we read in the prologue of this very exciting new book, Josef Stalin is very upset that the Spanish paid the Russians for a lot of arms that were needed in their Civil War with gold but that there was an shortfall of some five or ten million dollars worth and he charges Lavrently Beria his head of the NKVD, the state security service, with the task of getting it back.
We then go forward in time to September 1940 and the Battle of Britain is still going strong and the skies above London are nightly filled with the noise of German bombers attacking the capital and British Spitfires and Hurricanes trying to repel them. Scotland Yard DCI Frank Merlin is very affected by it all, he has a heavy case-load of many crimes to solve and also is tasked with supervising the work of other officers. He has a serious shortage of manpower to help him, as most of the younger and fitter men have already been conscripted into the forces. Frank, who is in his early forties has a Polish girlfriend, Sonia, who works as a nurse. Sonia has a brother Jan, who is serving as a pilot in the Free Polish Air Force and they are involved in helping the British fight the Battle of Britain.
The author has done a lot of detailed research and really brings this historic thriller to life with his finely described cast of characters as they fight the Nazi threat to freedom and also try to solve the case of a missing Polish pilot and in the midst of all the bombing and collapsing houses and buildings stop the looting by nefarious criminals of lots of expensive art and antiques.
The characters are all very richly drawn and I was reminded of the Inspector Troy books by John Lawton The details of the story are fascinating and give an insight into life at this time with all the difficulties over the rationing of food and time in bomb shelters. The plot with many dramatic twists and turns is very vivid and knowledgeable and the widely diverse scenes kept me transfixed until the last page.
I found it very difficult to put this very gripping story down until the extraordinary end. This is the second book written with the character 'Frank Merlin'. The first was PRINCES GATE, which was set during the "phoney war" of early 1940 and I look forward hopefully to reading many more books by this very gifted author. Strongly recommended.
Reviewed by Terry Halligan. (Read more of Terry's reviews for Euro Crime here.)
Terry Halligan, July 2014.