Monday, July 27, 2015

Princes Gate by Mark Ellis

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Author/Publicist
Read: July 15, 2015

Princes Gate is the first in a new series of crime thrillers that involve DCI Frank Merlin. These atmospheric books are set in wartime London mixing historical and fictional characters and featuring a charismatic and intriguing half-Spanish detective. When a brilliant emigre scientist is killed by a hit and run driver and a young woman's body is washed up in the Thames, Merlin and his team must investigate. The woman is an employee of the American Embassy, whose Ambassador at this time is Joseph Kennedy. DCI Merlin's investigation of diplomats at the Embassy ruffles feathers at the Foreign Office - the American Ambassador is a well-known supporter of appeasement and many powerful and influential Britons favour the pursuit of a negotiated peace settlement with Hitler. The death of another Embassy employee leads Merlin into some of the seedier quarters of wartime London where a corrupt night-club owner, various high-flying diplomats and the Ambassador himself appear to be linked to the events surrounding the deaths. Merlin has to pursue his detective work under the interfering supervision of an Assistant Metropolitan Commissioner who is fearful about the impact of Merlin's investigations on Anglo-American relations at a time when America represents to many Britain's only hope of salvation. Capturing the atmosphere of Britain in 1940 during the 'phoney war' when, although war rages on the Continent, life continues relatively peacefully in Britain, Princes Gate is an enthralling detective novel.

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Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.
It didn’t take much to rouse my interest in Mark Ellis’ Princes Gate. A mystery set in wartime London involving Joseph Kennedy, the Foreign Office and potential peace settlements with Hitler sounded absolutely fascinating and I couldn’t wait to get started. Looking back, I can’t say that enthusiasm misplaced as the book has a lot of wonderful things going for it, but I’m not sure it’s quite the enthralling thriller its jacket styles it to be.

Though noticeably similar to Michael Kitchen’s Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, I found Ellis’ Frank Merlin an interesting protagonist. His mixed heritage and world views made a refreshing change of pace and I liked the balance Ellis struck between his professional responsibilities and personal history. 

Ellis provides a well-researched portrait of politics during the Phoney War and I liked how he used the American Ambassador’s reputation to his advantage in the context of the story. The tone and style of the narrative is very English and while the pacing left much to be desired, I found the mystery itself quite satisfying.

Ideally I have liked more dramatic tension, more movement and a stronger supporting cast, but I’m not disappointed with the time I spent on this piece and would easily recommend it to fans of period mysteries.  

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He didn’t give a damn for the defeatist Kennedy, or indeed for that stuffed-shirt Chamberlain, whom Hitler had comprehensively hoodwinked. Nothing should stand in the way of a murder investigation, however lowly the victim. No doubt Joan’s fate would seem unimportant in the greater scheme of things whenever the Luftwaffe got round to bombing London, but that was nothing to him. It was his job to seek out the truth behind her death, regardless.
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