Thursday, September 14, 2017

Merlin at War: Influences: Guest Post by Mark Ellis

Mark Ellis is a thriller writer from Swansea, Wales and a former barrister and entrepreneur. He is the creator of Frank Merlin, a Scotland Yard detective fighting crime in World War II London. The third and latest of the series, Merlin At War is being published in the U.S. on October 12th. Mark is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association and the International Thriller Writers and divides his time between London and Oxford.

Mark Ellis:
Merlin at War: Influences

I am a late starter as an author. I only began to write properly after a thirty year career in business. In the latter part of that career I co-founded a computer services business with a good friend. We built the company up and were fortunate enough to sell it after ten years to the American corporation NCR. At that point I seized the opportunity to pursue my lifelong ambition of becoming a writer. In July of this year, the third book in my series about a World War II London detective, Frank Merlin, was published. It is my plan to follow Merlin in his adventures all the way through the war. Princes Gate, my first Merlin book, is set in January 1940, the time of what is now known as ‘the phoney war.’ Stalin’s Gold, the second, is set in September 1940, when the London Blitz was launched and the Battle of Britain raged. The latest book, Merlin At War, is principally set in June 1941, just after the Battle of Crete and just before Hitler invaded Russia. At this pace of historical progression, I obviously have a good deal more writing to do to get Merlin to peace in 1945!

Why did I choose to write about the WWII period? There were a number of influences. My parents lived through the war and my father fought in it. My father died when I was very young but my mother told me many fascinating stories about the period and life on the Home Front. Apart from hair-raising stories of the mass bombing and burning of my home town Swansea by the Luftwaffe, she had many interesting tales of how ordinary life carried on despite the existential threats all around. Using her railway worker’s free pass she would travel up to London from Wales with her friends at weekends to see the sights of the capital and to dance the nights away with dashing officers, even as the German bombs and doodlebugs rained down. Through this and other of her stories, I realised that as the nation battled valiantly for survival, ordinary people tried to carry on living ordinary lives. People dated, married, had babies, laughed, cried, fought, ate, drank, smoked and died natural deaths. They also stole, robbed, raped and murdered and did so at a greater rate than before in peacetime. Reported crime in England rose by almost sixty per cent between 1939 and 1945. Turning all this over in my mind as I contemplated what to write, it seemed to me that this period would a perfect one in which to set detective stories. And so this fascinating world became the world of Frank Merlin.

As to literary influences, there are too many to list here but here are a few who have been particularly important.

1. Georges Simenon – one of the most prolific authors of the 20th century and my favourite detective fiction author. His great creation, Jules Maigret, is one of the giants of the genre. One of his favourite pieces of advice, which I try to always bear in mind, is to avoid being ‘too literary’. By this he meant that writers should avoid unnecessary adjectives, adverbs or other words which are included just to make an effect. He strove for a simplicity and directness in his writing which I think enhances the power of his stories.

2. John Buchan – the author of the first adult thriller I read, The Thirty Nine Steps. I remember devouring it in a day when I was about eleven. He was a master of gripping plots. Greenmantle, the sequel to The Thirty Nine Steps, features in an unusual way in my new book.

3. Evelyn Waugh – not a thriller writer of course but he wrote a trilogy of books, known as The Sword of Honour series, set in World War II, in which there is a wonderful portrayal of life in the period. His main character, Guy Crouchback, like Waugh himself, took part in the Battle of Crete, which features in the opening scene of Merlin At War. A writer with a classically elegant and assured style much to be admired.

4. Alan Furst – the only living author in this list, Furst has written a string of masterful spy novels set in or just before WWII. He beautifully recreates the seedy, dark world of espionage in wartime Europe. He is often compared to Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, two other authors who have greatly influenced me.

5. Patricia Highsmith – creator of the great anti-hero Tom Ripley. Highsmith makes the reader stick up for Ripley, a sociopath and murderer, no matter how awful his crimes. I think of her when I'm devising my villains.

In addition to the authors above, I owe a major debt to the many excellent non-fiction writers on whose books about WWII events and personalities I have drawn and continue to draw. And then there are the many superb thriller and mystery authors writing today whose work I read avidly for pleasure and education. It seems to me that we are living in another golden age of the genre and hooray for that!

1 comment:

Aubrey Hamilton said...

So glad to know #3 is on its way!