Art theft, espionage, and murder in WWII London

Once again, crime is flourishing in the world of Detective Chief Inspector Frank Merlin of Scotland Yard. In this fifth installment of author Mark Ellis’s dynamic series, it’s the summer of 1942. London is bombed-out from the Blitz, and the Americans have arrived. DCI Merlin is working usual cases of armed robbery and fraud — and then two rare Leonardo da Vinci drawings are stolen from a private home.  

Drama steadily builds with tiny puzzle pieces intensifying the perplexing questions. They defy solving for the way events seem connected and yet so disconnected. There’s a Spaniard with a Portuguese alias following an enigmatic businessman; and a wealthy art collector in Portugal using the businessman as his agent because he himself is considered by Britain an enemy of the state. There’s a young Austrian banker working for his uncle in London who meets the grandson of an art dealer and discovers the existence of the da Vinci drawings – which he knows belong to his family; and there’s a former New York policeman and security man to Averell Harriman – history’s Averell Harriman, who worked for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration – the policeman now a liaison between the U.S. military police and the London metro police.  

To continue with the robust cast of characters might spin heads, but I’m still going to share that a German spy and a nearly bankrupt Dutchman are part of the mix. The art theft is a complicated crime, but author Mark Ellis doesn’t for a moment lose control of its many characters and what they’re up to. His talent earns our trust and magnifies our curiosity. 

Here are the bare bones of the plot: Leon Van Buren, that nearly bankrupt Dutchman I just mentioned, fled to England when the Germans invaded Holland. He took with him very little money and few possessions, which included Leonardo da Vinci’s rare drawings. When he finds a buyer for the artwork, he invites his two children to dinner to celebrate. They bring their partners, one of whom, unbeknownst to any of them, works for London’s top crime lord. Two murders take place, one in Soho and the other in Knightsbridge. Merlin and his team investigate all three crimes – the murders and the stolen art — but they lose the Soho case to the Americans when a black American soldier becomes the prime suspect. DCI Merlin, an unflustered seeker of truth, still investigates it, despite being barred by law. He knows in his gut the black American soldier is innocent and fears for his life in the hands of a racist American captain from Alabama.

As I said, it’s complicated, but the tiny puzzle pieces miraculously fall into place, all those disconnections connected, the art heist, murders, and even suspicions of espionage, wrapping up with surprises, including a delayed letter finally received and an incriminating photo on the bedside table of someone it’s too much of a spoiler for me to reveal. In the very last pages, a tidy police report demonstrates nothing will be overlooked in wartime London with DCI Frank Merlin on the case. 

Dead in the Water stands alone, and by that I mean without dependence on the previous four books in the series. I’m a reader burdened with the belief that I must start a detective series with book one, that not doing so would be the equivalent of entering a movie after it’s started; however, I took a chance with Dead in the Water, my first entrance into the DCI Frank Merlin series, and can attest to its stand-alone quality. It’s a superior detective thriller, and you can jump right in.

A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM, broadcasting throughout central Ohio.

4 thoughts on “Art theft, espionage, and murder in WWII London

  1. Sounds like an interesting series. I’m steeped in World War Two at the moment since I’m reading Churchill’s massive history of it, so this might be a somewhat lighter companion to that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The DCI Frank Merlin series would definitely lighten things up. It also might be more intriguing with your Churchill history informing the background. I’m impressed btw with your tackling the “massive history,” considering everything else you read!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s