A hard-boiled detective story set on the dark streets of London not long after England entered World War II.
In January 1940, 20-year-old Joan Harris, who works for the U.S. Embassy in London, suddenly goes missing and later turns up dead in the river. DCI Frank Merlin is assigned the case, and he’s warned by Assistant Commissioner Gatehouse to tread carefully and not ruffle any diplomatic feathers. But shortly afterward, Johnny Morgan, a chauffeur who also works at the embassy, is found with his throat slit, so Merlin charges headlong into the investigation. He discovers that Morgan’s employment was arranged by his uncle, Morrie Owen, the owner of nefarious nightclubs, such as The Blue Angel, known for prostitution and seedy clientele. Owen has a connection to Arthur Norton, an aide to U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and a frequent visitor to The Blue Angel. The deeper Merlin digs, the more lurid the case becomes, and he ultimately excavates a treasure trove of extortion, drug trafficking, and sexual secrets. The real-life historical backdrop for the story is Ambassador Kennedy’s insistence on keeping the United States out of the war, much to the approval of those within the British government, who believed that Hitler was someone with whom they could negotiate a peace. Merlin, meanwhile, agrees with Winston Churchill that war was inevitable. This is Ellis’ (Stalin’s Gold, 2015) first installment in a series that revolves around Merlin’s adventures. The author’s deep knowledge of London during this era has the stamp of scholarly rigor, and his gritty portrayal of the city gives the plot a sheen of authenticity. Further, the specter of war, and the intramural wrangling regarding England’s entry into it, adds an ambient volatility to the proceedings. Still, the anchor of the tale is Merlin, a quietly complex character—he lost his wife suddenly, and he ruefully expects the decline of his country, displaying a cynicism that seems to serve him well as a detective. Overall, this is a well-constructed mystery that artfully furnishes just enough information to keep readers invested but not so much as to slacken the suspense.
A historically astute, skillfully developed crime drama.