Written by Mike Ripley

Memories of Marcel Berlins (1941-2019)

Crime writers everywhere should be grateful to Marcel Berlins as he flew the flag for the whole genre in The Times for almost four decades, those who were able to incorporate a quote from him on the cover of a paperback especially so. Most fortunate of all were those who knew him. 

Exactly how many crime novels he reviewed since 1983 is unsure. He argued convincingly that it was more than the 972 titles I managed up until 2008, and he continued after that for more than ten years. Not surprisingly he was asked to share his expertise as a judge for the CWA Daggers (most recently in 2018) and as a judge for CrimeFest awards. He also appeared at some of the early Shots On the Page conventions in Nottingham in the 1990s, at one of which I was able to introduce him to rising star Minette Walters.



I first met Marcel in late 1989 at, I think, the CWA dinner where I received the Last Laugh Award for my second novel Angel Touch, which he had chosen as his ‘book of the year’ in The Times. (I was seated at the dinner next to the divine Sarah Caudwell, so details are slightly hazy.) I do remember that he introduced me to the late John Coleman, who reviewed for The Sunday Times.

Subsequently we would meet at publishers’ parties and book launches, such as for American John Hart in 2000 and with Ian Rankin in 2012:



Oddly, we never appeared together in public on a panel (perhaps a wise career choice on his part) and only once on a judging panel-the one and only time I served – for the CWA, but about twenty years ago Marcel suggested we meet privately for lunch to discuss ‘the state of things’ when it came to crime fiction. These lunches always took place near his London home – I was never able to tempt him out into the country – and were referred to in emails as appointments ‘for sluicing and troughing’ or ‘exchange of Luncheon Vouchers’.




At these lunches, which took place three times a year without the presence of publicity assistants (a constant bane in Marcel’s life), editors, or, even worse, authors, Marcel’s first question was always, without fail, ‘Who have you found who is new – and good?’ I would like to think I recommended some new talent over the years; I know I often followed his recommendations, and we disagreed rarely. In addition, we had a shared enthusiasm for the French television policier Spiral.

He was excellent company and a fascinating character too good to waste.

I managed to slip him into one of my ‘Angel’ novels (as a film company lawyer) and into one of my Albert Campion continuations (as a theatrical agent). In my Getting Away with Murder column he was always ‘Sir Bufton Tufton’, my legal adviser or consiglieri.

More seriously, I dedicated my 2018 novel Mr Campion’s War to him as he had proved invaluable in my research into the book’s setting: Marseille in 1942 under the Vichy regime. We would meet in his London flat and pore over maps, books and websites of wartime France. It was a subject of great interest to him personally, as the son of a Marseille hotelier who was suspected (rightly) of being Jewish, dangerously left-wing and a member of the resistance. After the Nazis occupied Vichy France in November 1942, his parents fled to a small village in the Vaucluse mountains where they were sheltered by the local Resistance group for the duration of the war.

Earlier this year, Marcel emailed me inviting me to London (even though it was my turn) 'for the purpose of eating while simultaneously discussing elements of your recent thesis on How the war was won in Marseille'. Sadly, that appointment was not to be kept.


A legal journalist and broadcaster before turning a sharp eye on crime fiction, Marcel Berlins was born in Marseille in 1941 but spent much of his youth in South Africa before moving to England. He always used to say that his fluency in English was as a result of compulsively reading the works of Agatha Christie and Peter Cheney as a teenager and that he supported Aston Villa because it was the first English football team he could pronounce easily!

His parents, Jacques (originally Jacob) and Pearl Berlins had emigrated to South Africa in 1951 and the young Marcel was schooled in Johannesburg and started to read law at the University of Witwatersrand before he was tempted to return to France to study Chinese Art at the Sorbonne. He was quickly arrested for missing his call up for National Service, arguing that the enlistment papers had not reached him in South Africa. Rather than submit to military service, Marcel fled to England to enrol in the L.S.E. to read law, with a view to becoming a barrister.

He never did and a job writing law reports for The Timesdrew him into  a career in legal journalism, and he once introduced me to The Seven Stars in Carey Street, which had been his local when he ‘worked the courts’.

Marcel went on to write regular legal columns for The Times and then The Guardian and present Radio 4’s Law In Action (1988 – 2004) and was latterly Visiting Professor of Media and Law at City University. His mellifluous vocal tones also became familiar to more general radio audiences as a member of the South of England team in the popular Round Britain Quiz.


In 2017 he paid me the greatest compliment a critic could by reviewing an unbound proof  (something all reviewers hate) of my non-fiction history of thrillers Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Not only did he say he liked it in print, but more importantly to me, he admitted privately that he had never heard of the author Joyce Porter until my book, but was determined to seek out her novels. No author could ask for a better accolade.

Marcel came along to the launch party, delighted to be visiting the legendary Gerry’s Club in Soho for the first time (or so he claimed).



Earlier this year, he and Robert Goddard were happy to mug for a photograph for that most persistent of snappers, Ali Karim.


On seeing the picture Marcel wrote to me: ‘The expression on my face (which my wife calls my bouledogue Marseillé look) denotes sheer amazement at the excellence of the book I was perusing.’ 

Marcel remained a French citizen and regularly returned to France in June and July. On June 1st this year, he emailed me to say how much he approved of my obituary of Anthony Price. On June 3rd, in Paris, he suffered a massive aneurysm and brain haemorrhage. He remained in a coma until his death on 31st July, his wife Lisa at his side.


In March 2017, he emailed me about my Shots appreciation of Colin Dexter, saying: ‘This is how tributes should be – and rarely are’.

I hope he feels the same now.


Mike Ripley, 2nd August 2019


Marcel Berlins

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