Writing war-time crime: Mark Ellis


15 May 2020
The crime novelist describes writing fiction that examines how crime boomed during WW2
Writing war-time crime: Mark Ellis Images

I write crime thrillers set in World War Two London featuring Frank Merlin, a Scotland Yard detective. Four books have been published in the series and I am currently working on the fifth.

With the celebration of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, World War Two has once more come under the spotlight. My books follow Frank Merlin’s adventures sequentially through the war and he has some way to go before he reaches the end of the war. The latest in the series, A Death In Mayfair, published recently, is set in December 1941. The book I’m writing now is set in August 1942. It will probably take another four or five books to get him to May 8th 1945. When he gets there he will find crime as rampant as ever in the war years. For it is a little known fact that crime boomed in the Second World War. This makes the period a great setting for a detective series.

The records show that reported crime grew by 57 per cent in England and Wales between 1939 and 1945. There were a number of contributory factors. Among them were the blackout, the chaos caused by German bombing, the explosive growth of the black market and police manpower shortages due to officers joining the military. Criminal gangs took full advantage of the circumstances. Looting of bomb-damaged properties, both by criminals and ordinary citizens, was rife. Serial murderers prowled the darkened streets. Airman Gordon Cummins became known as the Blackout Ripper for his murder of four women in the West End of London in a six day period in 1942. There were over three million military personnel stationed in Britain by 1944. Prostitution proliferated as soldiers, sailors and airmen sought female company. Numerous wartime scams including the forging of ration books and coupons. The police and security services also had to keep a look out for spies and saboteurs. The war was thus a very busy time for officers like Detective Chief Frank Merlin. So far in the series, his investigated crimes have included murder, child prostitution, fraud, robbery, theft, blackmail, forgery and espionage.

A considerable amount of research is involved in the writing of the Merlin books. For this I rely on my collection of war histories, diaries and memoirs, public libraries, the internet and, when possible, travel. Most of the action in Merlin’s books takes place in London, but other series locations have included  Moscow, Paris, Vichy, Cairo, Warsaw, Florida, Buenos Aires and Berlin. I have managed to get to some of these places for purposes of research.  The book I’m writing now features scenes in Lisbon but the Coronavirus is obviously making a research visit there impossible for now.

Speaking of the Coronavirus, there has been some media comparison of our current travails with those of the British people during the war. While deaths from the virus seem to have risen to levels seen in the Blitz of 1940/1941, the two crises are, of course, very different. Terrible as it is, there is no question of the virus destroying Britain as a nation. That was the existential threat which faced Britain in the war. Here are some key wartime facts and figures (rounded) to provide perspective:

• In the 1940/41 Blitz 32,000 people died across the country, and there were 87,000 casualties.

• 2 million houses were destroyed in the Blitz, 60 per cent of them in London. One third of London was destroyed.

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• The London Blitz lasted for 11 weeks. The city was bombed every day and night bar one.

• Many cities other than London were heavily bombed. These included Swansea, Cardiff, Bristol, Southampton, Plymouth, Birmingham, Coventry and Liverpool.

• German bombing continued throughout the war but became a major threat again in 1944 with the advent of the V1 missile, commonly known as the ‘Doodlebug’. The Doodlebugs killed 6,000 and caused 18,000 casualties.
The full total of British civilian deaths caused by the war is 67,000.

• 384,000 British military personnel died during the hostilities.

The Merlin books in sequence are Princes Gate which is set in January 1940, during the period known as the ‘Phoney War’, Stalin’s Gold, which is set in September 1940 at the time of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, Merlin At War, set in June 1941, just before Hitler’s invasion of Russia, and A Death In Mayfair, which takes place in December 1941, at the time of Pearl Harbour. The fifth, as yet untitled, will be out next year.


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