Sunday, February 24, 2013

Book Review: The First Casualty by Ben Elton

Ben Elton is best known for his comedy and humorous novels but in The First Casualty the author delivers a murder mystery set amidst the worst fighting of the First World War. Detective Kingsley goes to prison for refusing to fight in a war he considers unjust but finds himself in the trenches anyway, investigating the murder of poet and hero Viscount Abercrombie who had been suffering from shell-shock. The murder investigation proceeds slowly whilst the many distressing situations of the war are dramatized.

One of the strengths of this book is that it contains Ben Elton's typically anti-establishment attitude in the way he portrays the way that World War I is conducted and the politics of Britain at the time; this is hardly surprising considering the way that this period of time is widely regarded in modern times. In fact The First Casualty seems largely to be a vehicle for portraying the hardships of the time, touching on subjects such as the treatment of conscientious objectors, suffragettes, police brutality and the working classes, whilst taking a very long time to actually tell a story.

The plot of this novel is a pretty standard investigating of a fairly standard murder situation but the way the investigation is conducted and the lengths to which the military policeman has to go to collect evidence makes this quite an original detective story. Unfortunately, whilst these aspects of the book make the reader turn the pages, the author really does not capitalize on these themes and the plot is very light indeed whilst the imagery of the war seems to take centre stage.

The First Casualty contains some interesting characters including an investigator with confused priorities, an unusually forthright leading lady and a hateful villain. Whilst some of these characters are quite strong, many of the peripheral characters are quite cliched and will be recognized from countless World War I stories, movies and TV series.

Those who enjoy Ben Elton's writing will find The First Casualty an interesting read even though it does not contain his trademark humour and it is not one of his best books. However, I am not sure that those who are interested in World War I will find this novel particularly illuminating.

Score: 7/10

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