Newest Review: ... that allows Elton to subvert some of the genre conventions or to make observations about human nature (some amusing, some serious, so... more
Past Mortem - Ben Elton
Member Name: SWSt
Past Mortem - Ben Elton
Advantages: Strong, interesting plot with good observations on human nature
Disadvantages: People who dislike Elton will dislike this
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
Summary: Despite some flaws, it's a fun read