My thanks to the author Mark Ellis for a review copy of the book via Booktasters.
Dead in the Water is the fifth in the Frank Merlin series of police procedurals/mysteries set in World-War-II London. I have previously read and reviewed the first in this series but haven’t yet had chance to catch up with the others. When I was offered a chance to read this, though, I jumped at it. The series is set around DCI Frank Merlin and his team (comprising Sergeant Bridges, Constables Cole and Robinson, and Inspector Johnson), with each book following the case or rather cases they are engaged in while alongside also following developments in their personal lives. The book can, however, be read as a standalone.
The series brings out the diplomatic/political dynamics playing out in London at the time, which impact the investigations the team are engaged in requiring them to not only tread with caution but also engage in manoeuvrings to ensure that justice is done and perpetrators are put behind bars. Besides the background of the wartime situation and diplomacy, Dead in the Water explores art theft by the Nazis and art sales during the war as well as racism in the American military, which while not unsurprising, is not an issue I have so far come across explored in fiction or nonfiction.
This complex mystery with several intertwined and parallel threads opens in Austria where members of the wealthy Katz family are mercilessly apprehended by the Nazis who also seize/steal their valuable art collection. Some years later, in London in 1942, two pieces from this collection, sketches by none other than da Vinci, surface—the subject of an intended sale. The seller is another wealthy businessman Van Buren and a collector Gulbenkian is seeking to acquire the drawings through an agent Vermulen. Van Buren is keen to sell the da Vinci drawings as fast as he can, for he has lost much of his wealth to the Nazis in the Netherlands, his children’s demands for money are never ending, and his deceased wife’s property is the subject of a suit by her relations. But the Katzs’ son Nathan is also in London working for his uncle, and challenges Van Buren’s ownership, seeking to recover the paintings that once belonged to his family. Alongside there are a couple of spies working for different sides, tailing some of the people involved in this complex art deal. Then a body is found, followed in almost quick succession by another; and then a third.
Merlin begins to investigate but the Americans become involved as one of their soldiers turns out to be a suspect in the first murder as he is found in the vicinity of the body. At this time, the Americans, who had entered the war, had acquired the ‘power’ to try their own citizens in England. Merlin is quite convinced the suspect is innocent, but the American authorities are unwilling to accept this, essentially as the suspect is Black. The other two murders too, turn out to present many different possibilities and lines of inquiry. How does Merlin unravel these complicated mysteries?
Dead in the Water was another engrossing and interesting entry in the DCI Frank Merlin series. Like the first book I read, this one too gives us excellent historical background, especially of the complexities the war-time situation brought to even police work with agents of different countries (allies and enemies) operating alongside the everyday criminal activity that unfolded as usual. At the point where we are historically in the series, Russia, which until recently was with the Nazis is now with the allies, but must be dealt with carefully nonetheless, for secrets and suspicions remain. The Americans have entered the war and while they have acquired the right to try their own people, this is causing conflict with the local authorities, more so as the Americans’ prejudices and racism have travelled with them. Liaisons are appointed and attempts made to smoothen things but tensions continue. Besides these aspects, we also get a look into other impacts of the war; the horrors the Nazis unleashed of course, but also the art theft they blatantly committed; the monetary troubles faced in various quarters, especially businessmen who had international dealings, depending on who they supported in the early days of the war; and much else including some broader political developments like a meeting between Churchill and Stalin. I enjoyed the weaving in of an appearance by Eisenhower whom Merlin gets to meet.
I also thought the mystery element in the book very nicely done. There are three murders involved, and each with multiple possibilities—from espionage to the art deal to the personal lives and connections of the victims. There also emerge links between the victims but it is hard to tell until all is revealed whether the deaths were or weren’t connected. And the book certainly kept me reading on to see what the solution or solutions would be.
This was a very enjoyable read and one which those who enjoy historical fiction and historical mysteries would especially appreciate. The only complaint I had with it was, because of the very large number of characters involved, it took me some while before I could get my head around who was who, and keep them straight in my mind. Including a cast of characters at the beginning would have helped in this regard.
Overall, this made for an absorbing and interesting read.