Review - STALIN'S GOLD, Mark Ellis
The thing with really enjoyable review books that are part of a series is that there's no option but to go back and get the earlier books. Regardless of how teetering the current reading pile might be. Which is what happened here after finishing STALIN'S GOLD.
Interesting enough this is now the second series built around the Polish in England that's appealed - albeit this isn't set in current day. Despite it also being the second book in the series, it's very easy to get into sync with Frank Merlin. A cop kept behind in England whilst the war rages, because of the importance of the job, he's not completely comfortable with this imposition. The job is also made considerably more difficult because there is such a lack of police resources with so many people fighting the war. On the home front the police are dealing with the aftermath of the London bombings, with looters causing concern in very high places, enough to make his immediate superiors question the need for much time to be spent searching for a missing Polish RAF pilot.
But search and find that missing pilot Merlin does, and not just because of a personal request from the brother of his Polish lover. But the finding of the dead pilot leads to an even bigger mystery which eventually winds itself around more than just his death.
The atmosphere and sense of place that builds in STALIN'S GOLD is palpable. The ever present threat of the bombings, combined with the feel of darkened streets and people living in straightened circumstances, is nicely described, and that, combined with the character of Merlin - restrained, very British, and yet a loving and concerned man gives what's ultimately a thriller, a strong base in place and character. It's also not all dire - in amongst the bombed out centres there's orchestra performances, moments in parks, and quiet and relatively peaceful streets with people getting on with life.
The pacing of the thriller aspects is well done, and whilst the plot is complicated and quite far ranging, it weaves together deftly, with the characters remaining a strong focus. In a nice touch there's a real sense of grey about many of those characters. The circumstances of the lives that wartime people live sometimes leading them to do great things, or bad things. Not excusing any of the worst of the goings on.
The other nice touch is the inclusion of the Polish government in exile and the Polish community - an aspect of wartime London here, at least, that was quite illuminating.
Definitely a series for fans of historical crime fiction. Particularly those who like a touch of thriller pace in what is ultimately a good police procedural, with a strong central protagonist.
December 1938. Moscow. Josef Stalin has lost some gold. He is not a happy man. He asks his henchman Beria to track it down. September 1940 London. Above the city the Battle of Britain rages and the bombs rain down. On the streets below, DCI Frank Merlin and his officers investigate the sudden disappearance of Polish RAF pilot Ziggy Kilinski while also battling an epidemic of looting unleashed by the chaos and destruction of the Blitz. Kilinski's fellow pilots, a disgraced Cambridge don, Stalin's spies in London, members of the Polish government in exile and a ruthless Russian gangster are amongst those caught up in Merlin's enquiries. Sweeping from Stalin's Russia to Civil War Spain, from Aztec Mexico to pre-war Poland, and from Hitler's Berlin to Churchill's London a compelling story of treasure, grand larceny, treachery, torture and murder unfolds. Eventually as Hitler reluctantly accepts that the defiance of the RAF has destroyed his chances of invasion for the moment, a violent shoot-out in Hampstead leads Merlin to the final truth....and Stalin to his gold.