Unusually sombre novel by Ben Elton, set during the end of the first world war
I have never been a big fan of Ben Elton's literary opus: His 'satiric' novels where, although without a doubt to a certain degree rather entertaining, always rather vulgar and only applicable to the current zeitgeist. I much prefer his work with Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson on TV. Blackadder, The young ones, The thin blue line were all acidly funny, but when he is allowed to write uncontrolled, I always think his schoolboy toilet humour gets the better of him. With 'The first casualty', Elton steps out of this pattern and tries himself at a classic whodunnit, set in Belgium at the end of the first world war. As the title suggests, this is all about the different shades of truth during times of war.
Douglas Kingsley, a rising star in Scotland Yard with a nice house in Hampstead, a trophy wife and a brillant career in front of him is also a conscientious objector: he finds the mass slaughter that is taking place in Ypres highly illogical and sees no sense in it at all. This does not endear him to society and he is being thrown into Wormwood Scrubs and into the hands of a sadistic warden and the criminals he locked away. After manufacturing his death, the british military intelligence service whisks him out of prison and sends him to the front at Ypres to investigate the death of a celebrated war hero and poet. There, between all the carnage, the difference between legally sanctioned death and illegal murder start to blur and he is forced to act against his conscience.
This novel contains everything that you'd expect from a Ben Elton novel: masturbation, buggery, personae on the fringes of society and a lot of swearing. Except that in this novel it doesn't feel out of context. The environment of gore, filth and nihilism that Kingsley ventures into is so devoid of humanity that nothing else really has any shocking value.
Kingsley's character is well defined and his inner monologues never too elaborate, fitting his persona as a no-nonsense kind of bloke. There is a rich tapestry of rather disgusting characters and a plethora of battle scenes, although they do not feel contrived or elaborately gory: one gets the sense that violence was such a 'matter of fact', routine occurance that it din't really matter anymore.
With me being pretty much house bound at present, I read this book within a day: it is certainly gripping, and the story has numerous little twists and turns to keep your attention. It might be cliche-ridden at times, but that didn't deter from flow of the book.
Excellent first effort. Well worth reading.
Ben Elton: The first casualty
2005 Bantam Press, 480 pages.