My thanks to the author, Mark Ellis for a review copy of the book via Booktasters.
Prince’s Gate is the first in a series of mysteries/police procedurals set in Second-World-War London, the DCI Frank Merlin series, and is set against a background of war time politics, diplomacy but also the shadier underbelly of the city. DCI Frank Merlin was born Francisco Merino to a Spanish father and English mother; his father had anglicized their names. His team comprises Sergeant Bridges, and Inspector Johnson who works independently but under Merlin’s supervision (the department is short staffed since most are serving in the war. Merlin himself is also keen to enlist but his boss refuses to relieve him). Later they are joined by Constable Cole and Constable Claire Robinson, the Assistant Commissioner’s niece, who has recently qualified from Police College.
The book opens with some random scenes in the prologue—a lovers’ quarrel (or rather between two former lovers) and two muggers overhearing something suspicious. Later a young girl’s body is found in the river, not in particularly good shape. After some time and effort, she is identified as Joan Harris, one of the typists from the pool at the American Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy’s residence. We follow Merlin and his team (initially only Bridges) as they look into possible reasons and suspects behind Joan’s death. He questions other staff at the Embassy—among them one of the chauffeurs, Johnny Morgan, handsome but a womaniser (like many others in our story); and Arthur Norton, an informal aide of sorts to the Ambassador and involved in rather shady/sleazy personal and diplomatic activities. Meanwhile, Inspector Johnson is investigating a hit-and-run involving a rather important scientist, in which a young employee from the English Foreign Office is his main suspect, but the latter seems to have an alibi. Both matters involve sensitive spaces—the Foreign Office and the American Embassy—and Merlin and his team must tread carefully. Alongside, we get a look at the Morgan and Norton’s dealings, which involve a couple of younger and well connected Foreign Office employees, and Morgan’s uncle Maurice Owen, a dangerous man who looks like a gangster and runs some sleazy clubs.
We also get a look into Merlin’s backstory—He has lost his much beloved wife Alice and moved into lodgings; his brother Charlie is away serving in the war and no news has been heard recently while his sister-in-law and young nephew Paul look out for Merlin. Merlin has also played football in the past and one of his friends from those days, Jack Stewart, remains a good pal even now. Bridges on the other hand is married to Iris, whose curry-cooking experiments add some humour to our story.
I rather enjoyed reading this mystery which takes us both to the corridors of power and amongst the upper echelons of society and also its sleazy underbelly (from which some characters at the other end were not so far removed).
The historical background of the book was really well done. The politics and diplomacy of the period came through well—this was the period when Britain was still in favour of maintaining peaceful relations with Hitler and letting Hitler essentially run free in Eastern Europe so long as the Empire was left undisturbed, and the Soviet and rising communist threat was also checked (This was something I read about in one of my reads last month Wuhan by John Fletcher). Ambassador Kennedy seemed also to support this position while also furthering his political ambitions in terms of a bid for the office of the President. We see this politics play out both in formal channels as also in the underhanded ‘unofficial’ dealings between officials employed on both sides. Merlin too, reflects on the politics and policies of the time. This was also the first book I read set in this period which specifically brought up the issue of the difficulties the police experienced in carrying on their duties since most men were away serving in the war. Besides these more serious themes, we also get a look into popular culture like the music that Merlin enjoyed and such.
Merlin made for a fairly likeable character; as a policeman/detective, he doesn’t possess any exceptional talents but solves his cases by interviewing/interrogating various connected people and collecting evidence (i.e., the ordinary way—while things do take time, they never come across as plodding). He conducts his cases fairly and doesn’t allow the suspects’ position or power to daunt him at any point. I did feel though that in questioning one of the persons involved, Merlin did seem to browbeat them and not act with the sensitivity I would have expected him to show, particularly given what the person had gone through which Merlin was well aware of. The other characters are quite likeable as well; Bridges is good fun. Cole and Robinson are only introduced along the way but am sure one will get to see more of them in future instalments (there are already 4 books listed in the series).
The mystery itself was quite complex with many layers, so one could really see the various aspects only as Merlin uncovered the evidence and revealed new clues. One part of the plot I did manage to work out once one link came into the picture but for the rest, the solution was not one I expected at all. And even though it dealt with themes that were rather distasteful (sleazy clubs, blackmail and such), they were well handled, not veering into the explicit which I really appreciated.
Overall, I enjoyed the book very much and look forward to more of DCI Merlin’s outings.