2 November 2009

Crime Fiction Alphabet: THE FIRST CASUALTY, Ben Elton

Another novel that I read and reviewed 3 years ago, and until now, the review has been published on another site. This review is also being used for participation in for the Crime Fiction Alphabet Community Meme - letter E

Random House Australia, Black Swan Books, 2006

The setting is 1917 and the Great War grinds on, with the youth of the British Empire and Germany being sacrificed on the Somme. Despite the disillusionment creeping in, both on the war front and at home, those who do not volunteer are still regarded as cowards. Douglas Kingsley, an inspector in His Majesty's Metropolitan Police in London, finds himself in gaol when he declares that the war offends his sense of logic. Rejected by his wife and condemned as a conscientious objector, Kingsley is secretly sent to Flanders to investigate the murder of a British officer at Ypres. Not only a war hero, young Viscount Alan Abercrombie was also renowned as a poet. His father, Lord Abercrombie, is the Opposition Chief Whip in the British Parliament and he wants his son's murderer hunted down and shot.

The setting of the Great War allows Elton to ask questions about the importance of investigating the murder of one man when so much bloodshed is occurring all the time. The horrific stage that this war had reached in the trenches and mud of the Somme allows the reader to view the issue of crime in war, as distinct from war crimes, from many angles. Elton's descriptions are detailed, rich, authentic, and informative and yet through all is woven the thread of who killed Abercrombie and why. Kingsley's pursuit of the truth, his need to question witnesses about to die themselves in the next assault, and his personal need to conduct a thorough investigation, bring into this re-creation of history those elements that we who read murder mysteries enjoy. At the same time we feel we can trust Elton's depiction of history. For Kingsley the quest is of the utmost importance for he undergoes a sort of 'baptism of fire' and emerges himself a war hero, but also a murderer. Alan Abercrombie was far from the first casualty in the Great War, so, even in the title of the book, Elton has created a little puzzle for us to ponder.

My rating: 4.6

Many of us have already met author Ben Elton through his television work as the writer of shows such as The Thin Blue Line and Blackadder. What is amazing about Elton is the variety in his work, from comedy to musicals to serious fiction. THE FIRST CASUALTY is his 12th novel. His first was STARK (1989) and in 1996 he won a Dagger Award for POPCORN. Already his next novel CHART THROB (2006) is available. For other titles by Ben Elton check Fantastic Fiction.

Other Reviews:

July 2006 review, first published on Murder and Mayhem

5 comments:

Philip said...

A small point of interest. When I first encountered Ben Elton, I at once wondered if he might be related to G.R.(Sir Geoffrey)Elton, then Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. He is, in fact, the late Sir Geoffrey's nephew, and so the son of Lewis Elton, physicist and researcher in education. The tangentially relevant points are two: Geoffrey and Lewis' parents were themselves scholars, and so too their paternal grandfather, and thus, perhaps, comes Ben Elton's versatility with an underlying seriousness even in his comedic work. You really have to have a good grasp of history to write Blackadder, and it's much funnier to watch if you do.

But, the second tangent and re the present book, Sir Geoffrey and Lewis were born Gottfried and Ludwig Ehrenberg, and were taken to England by their German Jewish parents in 1939, aged 19 and 17 respectively. So there is something of a backstory to all this. I'm a bit curious re what Sir Geoffrey thought of his nephew. They look amazingly alike, but G was a staunch Thatcherite (not surprisingly, if you know his work on Tudor government), while Ben was rabidly anti-Thatcherism.

Unhappily, Ben has of late been working on musicals in collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, evidence of a sad, sad decline.

Margot Kinberg said...

Thanks for sharing this, Kerrie. I don't usually go much for war mysteries, but this sounds like it's so much more than just about the war. It sounds like it deals with a lot of much deeper issues, and I'm intrigued!

gautami tripathy said...

Oh, I like war mysteries. Another one to add to my list.

Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: E post!

Deb said...

Thanks for unearthing all the info about Ben Elton, Philip. When I first saw the author's name, I immediately thought, "I wonder if that's THE Ben Elton." Well, wonder no more.

Whenever we watch "Blackadder," I always tell my kids, "It's funny, but this guy really understands English history too." Usually, though, they just continue laughing at Baldrick.

Bernadette in Australia said...

This is the one Ben Elton book I haven't read but it sounds as if I should. Thanks for posting.

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