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Ben Elton books are generally something I can take or leave. I enjoy the ones I read, but am never in a desperate rush to get hold of his next one. As such, I'd had Past Mortem for a while before it finally made its way to the top of my "To Read" list.
Past Mortem sees a policeman investigating a bizarre murder in which a vicious thug is stabbed repeatedly with a mysterious small sharp object and bleeds to death. Following his hunches, Detective Inspector Newson uncovers some equally bizarre murders, which he believes are connected. Meanwhile, he starts to hook up with some old school friends via Friends Reunited and discovers that the past can make the present very complicated indeed.
Past Mortem is certainly different from most murder-mysteries and doesn't have that gritty approach which is becoming somewhat overused in the genre. There is no mass of forensic evidence, no discussions of psychological profiling, and no minute examinations of the last known movements of victims. This is not CSI: Elton. Indeed, you could accuse him of "dumbing down" the crime thriller. If you like your crime thrillers realistic and gory, then this is not going to satisfy you.
In fairness, that's not what the book is meant to be - it's a "lighter hearted" addition to the genre (if you can do that for the murder mystery scene) meant to entertain, rather than impress with its gritty realism. The plot is meant to be light, fluffy and slightly insubstantial. It's more something that allows Elton to subvert some of the genre conventions or to make observations about human nature (some amusing, some serious, some sad, some cynical). Taken on this level, the book is sufficiently successful.
Despite Elton's attempts to throw in a number of red herrings, it's not particularly difficult to identify the guilty party. Again, rather than detracting from the book this is a positive, leaving you free to get on with enjoying it, rather than having to concentrate on every single conversation to see if they contain anything of significance.
The murders themselves are imaginative and entertaining and as the plot becomes clearer, it's interesting to see how each of the murders is committed and work out their significance. Elton proves adept at keeping the reader's attention, slowly drip-feeding information and building in new revelations that keep you interested. Even if you know where the book is heading, you're keen to read on to can see if you are right.
Past Mortem also invokes a strong sense of nostalgia for the halcyon days of childhood, particularly if your formative teen years were in the 1980s. References to music, groups, films and news items will bring back memories and you will find yourself reminiscing fondly. Yet, Elton is also quick to counter this fond nostalgia with a darker side, pointing out that childhood is not a time of happy memories for everyone or that some people spend their whole lives regretting or attempting to recapture the past, to the detriment of their present and future.
As you might expect from Elton, Past Mortem can be very amusing at times in a wry, underplayed fashion. Elton uses his characters to make some interesting (and painfully true) observations about human nature, human attitudes and society in general which combine genuine wit with serious points. This has always been one of Elton's trademarks and whilst his firebrand delivery style has been diluted over the years, there are nevertheless some very amusing moments.
Inevitably, Elton's political standpoint may be a source of irritation for some. Although he has toned down his political persona, he still makes his own views very clear through the behaviour of his characters and some observational asides. However, this is not the stand-up Elton of the mid/late 80s. The political element is not stifling or intrusive, although if you dislike Elton's left-wing stance, then some elements of the book will certainly have you bristling!
Elton gets away with these weaknesses because Past Mortem is insanely readable. The fact that it's not steeped in forensic reality does the book some favours. You don't get bogged down in tons of complex, technical data relating to blood spatter patterns, projectile velocities and all the other things the gritty thrillers rely on. Instead, there's enough detail so that the book appears convincing, without ever boring you to death.
This slightly superficial approach leaves Elton free to concentrate on the characters, placing them, rather than the murders, centre stage, although you could accuse Elton of being a little lazy, since the characters are the same stereotypes he has been using throughout his writing career. Detective Inspector Ed Newson is an insecure, slightly neurotic policeman hopelessly infatuated with his colleague. In other words, he's the literary equivalent of Elton's "Farty" from the 90s TV show. Similarly, the object of Newson's desire Natasha is the "unobtainable beauty" that always falls for the wrong type of man.
Yet to criticise Elton for this would be somewhat churlish. The reason he keeps re-using these characters is because they work. Neither Newson nor Natasha are anything special or clever: they are just ordinary people like you and me, with their own worries and problems and that means we can identify with them. Past Mortem is a book about human nature and whilst the plot may have some darker elements, the overall tone always remains wonderfully buoyant and light, thanks to the great banter between characters.
Despite some weaknesses, Elton does successfully manage to mix murder with mirth. It won't be of interest to hard-core murder-mystery fans, who will deride its lack of reality, but is accessible to anyone who just enjoys a good read. It's also not likely to be a book you will read more than once, so I'd recommend hunting for it in a charity shop or borrowing it from a library rather than buying it. If you can pick it up cheap, it's an entertaining enough little read.
Black Swan, 2005
© Copyright SWSt 2011
Past Mortem is a funny, easy to read and cuttingly satirical effort from Ben Elton, I have njoyed a number of his books as he has the ability to take a pop at common cultural institutions or fads and to show them up for the ludicrous things that the are, other targets have been Big Brother, the X Factor style shw and also the tendency for people to go over board in chat rooms and blogs.
In Past Mortem it is more a pop at the whole obsession with tracing your supposed friends from the past and the fact that it may not necessarily be a good thing. The main character is DI Newson who is called in to investigate a series of strange murders, all of the victims are rather loathe some in their own way and have died rather nasty deaths. His colleague is Sergeant Natasha Wilkie and as a side story he is in love with her but she does not know it. They soon discover that each of the victims has been subject to accustions of bullying on Friends Reunited and the next murder brings Newson into contact with former school mates of his own.
There are less laughs in this book than you normally get with a Ben Elton book however that fact does not detract from the overall enjoyment I got from reading this. It is a well crafted novel that moves along at a good gallop and certainly I found it hard to put down. It is an easy book to read which I polished off over a couple of days and is ideal holiday reading material.
Newsome is a likeable character who is racked with self doubt and was the victim of bullying at school himself. His almost juvenile infatuation for Natasha is amusing at times.
Past Mortem is a good read, indeed some current bullies would be best off reading this, maybe it might scare them away from the behaviours they are showing.
There have been a series of strange murders, with the dislikeable victims killed in inventive ways. Detective Inspector Edward Newson and his sidekick (and the woman he loves), Detective Sergeant Natasha Wilkie, are both stumped, until they realise that each of the victims was a bully at school, with their crimes advertised on Friends Reunited for all to see. Then Newson becomes involved with old schoolfriends Helen and Christine - Christine was the school beauty who bullied Helen by sticking a tampon in her mouth when she began her period - and then Christine ends up dead with a tampon down her throat. Even worse, Newson realizes that he must know the killer. Can he work out who it is before someone else is murdered? And will he ever end up with Natasha to himself?
I am of the generation in which Ben Elton will always be known first and foremost as a scriptwriter for hit comedies such as Blackadder. However, he has also published a number of novels, including this one, which have done exceptionally well. This is my first example of his book and I was a little unsure of what to expect - was it going to be a comedy? There is no doubt that there is a streak of humour running through the book, but on the whole, it is actually a fairly serious piece of crime fiction and it is well-written to boot.
Edward Newson (known as Spewsome Newson at school) is a short man with ginger hair, a good sense of humour and a very low sense of self-worth. He cannot imagine a beautiful woman like Natasha ever falling for him - and it seems that this is the case as she has a long-term jerk of a boyfriend. All this makes Newson immediately likeable; women because he is an underdog and general all-rounder and men because he makes them feel better about themselves. His private life does play quite a large part in the novel, which helps to develop him as a character - the involvement with old schoolfriends means that we get a glimpse of him as a schoolboy and all the trials and tribulations he had to go through. His feelings for Natasha are touching and slightly comic, and generally a pleasure to read.
The main emphasis of the book is on bullying and the damage that it does. All the murder victims had a massive influence on the lives of the people they bullied, although they were almost certainly not aware of it. Having been bullied myself, I must admit I am tempted to send a copy of the book to my bully. Although obviously I don't condone going around murdering bullies, I liked the message that the book gave - bullying is such a hidden problem in so many walks of life and it is good to see it dealt with in this way. There are also messages about domestic violence, because Natasha finds herself in a situation where she is being bullied by her partner.
I really enjoyed the pacing of the novel. It is never boring; every time it seems that the action is coming to an end, something else happens, making it really hard to put the book down. The last third of the book in particular is very exciting and kept me up late until I had finished it. For those who don't like gore, it can get a little out of hand at times - some of the murders are really very unpleasant and the descriptions are quite graphic. There are also a couple of very graphic sex scenes, involving fisting and anal sex - it wasn't overly offensive, but it didn't really seem to belong in this sort of book. However, there is some respite between these sections with Newson's views on women and life in general, which add a little bit of humour to the proceedings.
The only let-down to the book for me was that the plot just got too out of control. The murderer's reasons for committing the killings weren't convincing; nor was their ability to track all the victims down and gain access to their properties. The author was, I think, trying to keep things light-hearted and so some artistic licence has to be allowed, but he just went a little too far. And the last couple of chapters seem as if they were written in a bit of a hurry, with the author just wanting to tie up all the loose ends and finish the book. It didn't ruin the book for me, but it did turn what could have been a brilliant book into just a very good one. There are also a couple of policing issues - things that I'm fairly sure would never happen during a murder investigation - that made me stop and take note.
Despite the odd reservation, however, the book is very well written. It flows well and the language is pithy and to the point, as I would expect from a taltented man like Ben Elton. The chapters are a great length - generally nice and short, and always ending with a slight cliffhanger to encourage the reader to keep reading. As far as I'm aware, Newson doesn't appear in any of Elton's other work, but I would have been quite happy to read more about him had this book resulted in a series - I think Elton makes a surprisingly good author of crime fiction and with a little bit more research into policing issues, he could have become even better.
I enjoyed reading this book very much. It isn't without its flaws, but it is certainly entertaining and I wouldn't hesitate to read more of Elton's work. Whether you like crime fiction or not, I think this book is worth trying - although if you are expecting a laugh on every page, you might be disappointed, so it is best to be prepared. Recommended.
The book is available from play.com for £4.99. Published by Transworld Publishers, it has 419 pages. ISBN: 9780552771238
I have read quite a few books by Ben Elton and generally find his writing very enjoyable especially when he takes his unique and cutting stance on various 'national phenomenon' such as Big Brother in 'Dead Famous' and X Factor in 'Chart Throb'. In this book 'Past Mortem' he takes a very alternative look at Friends Reunited which a few years ago was such a big thing with old school friends from all around the country contacting each other through this website. I think that most people probably found it quite an enjoyable thing to do, but Ben Elton's take on the whole thing is a lot more sinister!
Also, in other books of his I have read there has been an underlying humour which seems to be unexpectedly missing in this book. It does seem just that bit more serious especially as the main theme which links all the stories together is one of bullying.
The main character is Ed Newsome, who we soon learn was a bit of a nerd when he was at school. However, he is now the youngest detective inspector with the Met and is involved with trying to solve a series of gruesome murders. There are a number of these which all seem to have been carried out with meticulous care - there is no forced entry into the victims' homes and every time the victim is found there is music related to a specific year playing.
At the same time, Ed also becomes involved in the Friends reunited website and it's not long before old friends are making contact again. It all turns out to be rather complicated and some of the consequences are quite unexpected. There is even a class reunion arranged that turns out to be excrutiatingly cringeworthy
Towards the end of the book the two stories become interlinked and it appears that putting an entry on the website may not always turn out for the best. I will say no more on that as you will just have to read it to see what I mean!
Ed is the central character and he is quite likeable as is his sidekick Detective Natasha Wilkie who Ed is secretly in love with. The rest of the characters are a pretty unworthy bunch and I did not find myself warming to any of them which consequently meant that I didn't care what happened to them either.
The book runs at a fairly reasonable pace although with 450 pages I felt it was just a bit too long. I'm not sure why, but I found it was a book that was quite difficult to get into although from about the midway point my interest increased and I did find myself more involved in the story.
What is interesting and at times moving is the theme of bullying which is very strong in this book. It seems that virtually everyone has been affected by bullying in some shape or form and it just goes to show that both bullies and their victims show up in all guises.
So overall, I don't think that I enjoyed 'Past Mortem' as much as some other Ben Elton books, but it was still a reasonably good read. I always like a good detective story and this is essentially what this book is. There were lots of clues dropped in the investigation, and I have to say that at about 100 pages to go I did have a flash of inspiration as to who was committing all of the murders although I did have to wait until the very last pages to find out if I was right! And of course, I'm not going to tell you who I thought and if I was! You'll just have to read it!
The book is published by Transworld and has a RRP of £6.99 for the paperback but is being sold on Amazon at the moment for £5.49.
I found this book very enjoyable to read. Initally, I did find that the beginning of it was written in a very slow pace. But, having read the entire book now, this pace was totally appropriate and certainly gave the book a sinsiter and mysterious undertone. The ending was a bit of a let down as I found there was no real climax but, having said this, it is still one of those books to read!
Having read and reviewed a lot of Ben Elton books I can say that this is one of the better books however it does not have the same level of humour that Dead Famous or Popcorn had in them. In both of those books the subject matter of reality TV and Hollywood excess provided a fertile ground for Elton biting sarcasm and ability to ridicule the absurd whereas with Past Mortem the subject matter of class reunions and Friends Reunited does not present the same opportunities other than a few references to the music of the eighties and the fact that sometimes the in crowd of our youth do not quite have the glittering futures that was predicted for them.
Instead with Post Mortem you have a rather dark murder mystery which is quite graphic in parts and touches on some rather stomach turning issues, well they are stomach turning for me but then Im the sort if wimp who cannot watch any sort of horror films or hospital dramas.
The basic plot sees Detective Inspector Edward Newson of the London Metropolitan Police investigating a gruesome murder of a hugely disliked South East London petty criminal who was despised by everyone who ever met him, the fact that he had been murdered by over 247 small puncture marks while listening to eighties music just makes the murder all the more strange and high profile. When another equally strange but seemingly unconnected murder takes place Newson is the only person who sees a link between these and other murders in the past and soon he is on the hunt for a serial killer whose murders are becoming more and more frequent.
Newson as a character is one of the most interesting and well developed characters that I have come across while reading Elton work and was one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much. He is not your typical police man having risen through the ranks extremely fast he also does not look like your typical police officer, he is rather small at 5ft 4ins which is something constantly referred to by all who meet him and a pale complexion and bright ginger hair make him stand out and also have a huge effect on his own self esteem. To make matters worse he is very lonely and is rather inappropriately in love with his Sergeant who is in a committed but rather abusive relationship.
This loneliness leads him to log on to Friends Reunited in order to track down a former girlfriend however he soon finds out that as well as using the site to stalk old love interests (as he is doing) it is also used by some people to vent about their former school colleagues and to bring up past insults and acts of bullying.
In terms of character development the strength of this book rests solely with Newson and as with most of the characters in Elton work he is a flawed character with a number of faults especially in his ability to develop relationships and his obsession with his sergeant. The story is told in the third person almost entirely from Newson perspective which gives the reader a good insight into how his mind works as he carries out the investigation and overcomes all of the obstacles in front of him.
As a thriller this book works well although the end outcome and identity of the killer is quite transparent from about the half way mark of the book it is still an entertaining and gripping read and there is a dark sense of threat throughout the book. One of the clever ways that the suspense is maintained is through the fact that the reader can never be sure that any of the characters are actually completely safe and this includes Newson as well, this is helped by the fact that as a writer Elton does not have sequels to his books, at least not as far as Im aware, so there is always the prospect that anyone can meet a sticky end.
Like I said as a thriller it works well however it does lack the humour of other books and to be honest the attempts at dark humour in this book do not work that well, Newson obsession with Natasha and his desire to rekindle former loves from the past are supposed to provide some form of comic respite but they do not really work in my opinion, rather than laughing I just felt embarrassed for the bloke. Where the humour does work is when looking at the Friends Reunited process and the way people interact via a website and again when they all organise a reunion.
There are some rather gruesome sections in the book, the murders themselves are very detailed and very violent, there is also a rather graphic sex scene in the book which had me crossing my legs and covering up other bits of my body, definitely not for the squeamish and anyone who reads it and gets turned on well you definitely need to get help. I also found it quite hard to read a couple of sections which focused on self harm which is something as a teacher I have to come across and hate having to deal with as it is so upsetting.
If you can get past these points then Past Mortem is an entertaining thriller and would make good reading for the beach as it is fast paced and the text is easy and broken down into fairly short chapters.
I got my copy through readitswapit.co.uk as part of a swap (I get most of my books this way now). Published by Black Swan the rrp is £6.99 however it is available on Amazon for £5.28 new or from a penny in the new and used section. The ISBN is 0-552-7713-6.
Thanks for reading and rating my review.
A lot of people seem to find Ben Elton irritating, but I've always kind of liked him. I'm old enough to still mainly associate him with the sparkly-suited motormouth comedian of Saturday Night Live in the Eighties (anyone else remember his tirades against "Thatch"?) but nowadays he's probably better known through his writing. Having read and quite enjoyed some of his previous novels, I approached this one in the hope that it would provide some entertaining escapism.
"Past Mortem" is Ben Elton's ninth novel. As readers of his previous output will know, his novels tend to focus on "issues" - the environment (Stark), drugs (High Society), movie violence (Popcorn), "reality" TV (Dead Famous), etc - with a strong dash of humour and, in some cases, a certain amount of murder and mayhem. In the present case, he has turned his attention to the issue of bullying.
The main character of the novel is policeman Edward Newson, a detective inspector who despite success in his profession, fears people (especially women) don't take him seriously because he's mild-mannered, short and ginger. (Not, I hasten to add, that there's anything wrong with being mild-mannered, short and ginger.) He's also languishing in unrequited passion for his sergeant, Natasha Wilkie. The book opens with Newson and Wilkie investigating a rather nasty and puzzling murder, which rapidly develops into a sequence of nasty and puzzling murders of what are, apparently, fairly random victims. At the same time, Newson - in an attack of nostalgia for a gorgeous girl he went out with briefly at school - signs up to Friends Reunited, with unforeseen consequences.
"Past Mortem" is an original idea and is well plotted. It does succeed in holding the reader's attention, and manages to deliver a few surprises. Having said that, I had a strong hunch as to the murderer's identity fairly early on, as I suspect will many other readers - and the murderer's eventual unmasking came as no surprise whatsoever - but that didn't really spoil it too much.
On the downside (at least for me - admittedly some people might construe these as advantages) the murders are fairly grisly and there's a really off-puttingly graphic, utterly non-erotic and, dare I say it, somewhat gratuitous sex scene. Elton - or possibly Newson - also seems to have an obsession with womens breasts, which he constantly mentions and describes!! (Maybe this just provides an insight into what goes on in the average male mind?)
Elton's writing style is competent but not inspired. It gets the job done, but you're probably not going to gasp in amazement at the quality of his prose. There is a certain amount of humour - some of it a little contrived - but no real laugh-out-loud moments. The characters are well drawn, and Elton doesn't often resort to lazy stereotypes - although Newson's love object, Sergeant Wilkie, did seem rather alarmingly shallow at times. This is a shame, as I do think Elton is capable of writing more convincing female characters. The book is a fast, easy read - I finished it in a couple of days.
All in all, a reasonably enjoyable, tightly plotted novel - but I don't think Ben Elton will be winning any Booker Prizes in the foreseeable future, nor do I think this is one of his better efforts.
Black Swan paperback, 460pp. The cover price is £6.99, but I got it for £3.73 in Asda. Available from Amazon from £1.60 used.
This is primary in the thriller genre of books, but being by Ben Elton there is some humour, although not laugh out loud moments for me in this one.
After graduating in drama, Ben Elton started a career as a stand-up comic. He then got involved in writing sit-coms including The Young Ones, The Man From Auntie, Blackadder, and the Thin Blue Line.
His other books include Inconceivable, which was turned into the film Maybe Baby, that he directed himself.
Past Mortem starts by taking us to a gruesome murder scene, where Detective Inspector Edward Newson is trying not to puke over the evidence. However vile the situation, puking over vital forensic evidence would not only lead to taunting by his colleagues, but also hinder the investigation.
The killer had deliberately kept his victim conscious with smelling salts, while he was tortured to death. I won't go into detail in case I either spoil the story for anyone, or offend others by being too graphic, but the victim underwent what appeared to be an approximately 18 hour bloody ordeal before death occurred.
Although the autopsy gave a clear indication of how this victim died, there was very little in the way of clues to help find the killer, so the detectives take their inquires to the towns of other unsolved murders, where the intention was to make the victim suffer as much as possible before death.
As I don't usually read books containing violence, I might not have got past the first few pages, if it hadn't been for Ben Elton's style of writing. The pace is fast and I found the description of the interaction between Newson and some of the other characters amusing, despite the storyline of sadistic murders.
It is told from the viewpoint of DI Newson, who isn't an average copper. He had got to his rank by the comparatively young age of 34, and is a five foot four mild-mannered man. His boss doesn't judge him by outward appearance, as many others do, as he knows his intelligence. Newson has a first class law degree, and was top of his year at the Hendon Police Training College in everything except fight training and sports.
Newson's sergeant is the attractive Natasha Wilkie. Newson doesn't expect her to ever want any sort of relationship with him beyond being a good colleague, but that doesn't stop him wanting her. He has little or no social life, but listens as she tells him of the latest developments in hers. He hates the way her selfish boyfriend treats her. The interaction between these two characters provides the main comic relief from the sickening murders.
All the many rich characters in this book, whether representing good or bad, sane or deranged, were believable to me.
When Newson realises that his infatuation with his sergeant has become painful and obstructive, he turns to cyberspace to try to displace it. He joins the Friends Reunited website in search of school friends from 1981-88, all of whom he has lost touch with. There is one girl in particular he hopes to find, but has no idea what this search will lead to, and the twists and turns in the storyline kept me guessing until the end. Having finished the book though, I suspect some readers who are more used to this genre than me, could have had a good guess at the ending.
As well as being an entertaining thriller, this book carries a strong anti-bullying message to both potential victims, to make themselves less vulnerable, and bullies, who should be aware of the possible consequences of their actions. Ben Elton obviously believes, as I do, that there aren't enough streetwise teachers in our schools. It is common for Ben Elton's work to include some sort of social commentary.
DI Newson is, however, determined to do everything is his power to stop the murderer/murders he is after in this tale, and I was willing him to succeed until the end. To succeed he would need more strengths than many thought he had.
If this were made into a film, as one of his previous books was, I think it would be possible, by use of discreet camera angles, and some facts being kept verbal instead of visual, to get the violence level down to a 15 rating. However, there is one scene of, what the author calls, "weird sex" that I think would have to be cut completely, to avoid getting an 18 rating. I assume it was in the book to help demonstrate the dreadful mental state of one of the characters, and the vulnerability of another, but it is not, in my opinion, crucial to the storyline.
The only other book by Ben Elton I have read so far is Dead Famous, but as I have enjoyed both these books, I will be reading some more.
Paperback: 459 pages
Publisher: Black Swan; New edition edition (2 May 2005)
The marvellous Ben Elton has done it again - I couldn't put this book down and read it straight through. The story centres around the Friends Reunited phenomenom and it's certainly made me think about joining up! Edward Newson isn't your average detective, he's short and not God's gift to women, he also happens to be in love with his work partner. By the end of this book he'll have had his fair share of bad luck and suffered enough bizarre episodes for you to be praying he 'gets the girl' at the end of it. A very clever and at times funny script which leaves you with at least 2 suspects right up until the last few pages. It was one of those rare books that I couldn't wait to finish and then wished it had never come to an end.