Ben Elton is probably most famous as a stand-up comedian and co-creator of such tv comedy classics as 'The Young Ones' and 'BlackAdder'. He has also turned his hand to novel writing and this, his tenth novel, was published in 2005.
'The First Casualty' is set in World War 1 and its title is an allusion to the phrase "the first casualty of war is the truth". The story-line is of a conscientious objector policeman being given the chance to rehabilitate his reputation by investigating the murder of a prominent war hero/poet and aristocrat.
The depiction of the first world war trenches and frontline environment seems well-realised and believable. Elton must have an enthusiasm for and strong interest in the time period: the book is well-researched and vividly constructed. I did feel that some of the scenes of the novel were rather far-fetched: such as performing forensics under fire in an enemy trench, which stretched credulity somewhat!
Elton leans a little too much towards the didactic in his telling of the history and politics of the time, which was a trap some might say he fell into with his stand-up too. There were aspects that felt forced, there only in order that he could cover all the issues he wanted to talk about. This struck me particularly with his suffragette, such as her justified hatred of policeman (due to the Cat & Mouse Act).
I also felt that although Elton tried to depict a free-loving feminist, there was some unfortunate slip-shod thinking in it.
I liked the self-conscious questioning of the investigation of one man's murder in the context of mass-slaughter in the trenches. But I felt the book didn't quite mesh, it was sometimes difficult to tell whether some of dialogue was meant to be humorous or read straight. Elton pulled off the poignant and funny entwined so well with his co-writer Richard Curtis & the cast of 'BlackAdder Goes Forth' (which inevitably this book must end up being compared to) but here it doesn't work.
The protagonist himself wasn't particularly likeable and it was hard to care about the characters much. The ending seemed a bit rushed and too neat.
Overall, it was a reasonable thriller/crime novel, especially interesting for the historical setting. I don't think it is Elton's best but it's worth borrowing if not buying.
If you wish to buy it, it's available new from Amazon for £5.49. You can almost certainly pick it up more cheaply secondhand, or borrow it from the library.
Product details (as available from Amazon):
# Paperback: 419 pages
# Publisher: Black Swan; New edition edition (3 May 2006)
# Language English
# ISBN-10: 0552773360
# ISBN-13: 978-0552773362
# ASIN: 0552771309
# Product Dimensions: 19.9 x 12.7 x 2.9 cm
(Some elements of this review appear online at LibraryThing & elsewhere under this user-name, although I have revamped it somewhat especially for DooYoo.)
I have enjoyed a few of Ben Elton's books - satirical commentaries on modern issues - although I do not like him as a comedian. When I saw The First Casualty I was intrigued as it was a who dunnit set in the First World War, a totally different type of novel to Elton's previous offerings and it didn't even look like there was any comedy involved. I duly bought it and set to reading it over Xmas.
It is 1917, shortly before Third Battle of Ypres occurs in France, Inspector Douglas Kingsley, a highly decorated London Police Officer, is on trial as a conscientious objector - however he's not a pacifist its simply that he does not agree, logically, with the war. Of course this reasoning does not sit well with the judge and Kingsley rapidly finds himself in a London prison and meeting several old acquaintances who are looking for a chance to get even. Meanwhile in France Viscount Abercrombie, British officer, war hero and celebrated poet has been been removed from the front to a hospital to recover from shell shock.
Even though he is behind the lines Abercrombie is shot dead. The manner of his death and the man suspected of his murder rapidly threaten the peace in England, a neutral investigator is required and so Kingsley finds himself heading to France to secure a conviction. He finds out there is many more faces to the war than he ever realised. Can he find the truth? Is there still any truth in the Great War?
I found the characters in this book hard to warm to however there was a good variety not just soldiers fighting the war - suffragettes, homosexuals, communists, nurses, ammoral soldiers. Kingsley himself came across as supecilious and almost holier than thou, you keep on getting told how he thinks he knows better than everyone else and is usually proved right. Although it was interesting to see the First World War through his rational eyes - he had an almost 21st century view on the war.
I found this book very easy to read and rapidly got through it, Elton's writing style is easy to understand and flows well, and the chapters ar very short so you can get through a few chapters quickly and feel as though you are getting a decent book fix.
With the easy reading style and the fact that Elton investigated the war and its effects in different places on different people made this book very interesting and compensated for the unsympathehtic characterisation, with the variety of characters it was possible to get a snapshot of lots of different lives during the war. There is also a brilliant, simplified explanation of how the First World War started which would be a good starting point for anyone trying to fiind out about the First World War.
Overall I'm not totally sure that I enjoyed this book. It was well written, very easy to read and gave an interesting view on different aspects of the First World War, but I can't quite put my finger on what made it an unsatisfying book for me. I think that the main problem was that I just was interested in the main characters and therefore didn't get totally gripped by the story. Would I read it again? Probably as I don't totally hate it and its an easy read I will probably give it a second chance to see if I can get a better feel for it - until then this will just get three stars from me for an informative book but with something lacking in the characterisation.
Ben Elton normally writes a story in a very witty way with a serious important message behind it. The First Casualty is an exception to this rule. Not that there isn't an important message behind the writing. Quite the opposite, in fact. But this time Ben Elton isn't writing for laughs. This is a serious book from start to finish - the only humour contained in it's pages is gallows humour. The main protagonist is anti war and is arrested for his refusal to participate. However he gets a chance of redemption when he is given the opportunity to investigate a murder case. The twist is that the man who is accused of the crime faces the death penalty. However, if he is cleared of all charges then he gets his freedom - the freedom to return to active duty and to be killed in the name of his country. A complex moral dilemma, delivered surprisingly well by an author not renowned for non comedy writing.
For my money, Ben Elton has a bit of a mixed record when it comes to books. Some are excellent, others readable and some really quite poor. The First Casualty definitely belongs in the first category.
It centres on Inspector Kingsley, a police officer and conscientious objector, who suddenly finds himself investigating a murder in the trenches of the Great War in 1917. Despite this fairly standard sounding plot summary, though, it's not a conventional murder-mystery book, offering far more than just a straight forward whodunit plotline. There's commentary on the First World War, an array of interesting and very human characters, humour, action, and, of course, this being a Ben Elton book "a little bit of politics".
It's Elton's story-telling ability which shines through with this one. Writing has always been one of this strengths - whether writing long stand-up routines, sitcoms or books. He translates that style into a very readable and highly enjoyable book. Chapters are deliberately kept short - often 10 pages or so, making it very easy to dip in and out of and to read in gradual stages or pleasant to read in larger chunks - whichever takes your fancy. The plot progresses at an excellent pace - never going so fast that you struggle to keep up with what is happening, but never proceeding too slowly, so that your attention starts to wander and you get bored. The story is so interesting and the plot so well-written and well-paced means that you'll find yourself wanting to get to the end of this intriguing book quickly to see how it all pans out. Elton definitely has a knack of piquing your attention early on and then keeping it throughout.
Of course, we all know from Elton's previous works that he has considerable skill with words, and it certainly doesn't desert him here. When recreating the horrors of trench warfare in World War One, he effortlessly conveys how hideous the conditions were, without ever making it feel as though he is ramming it down your throat. He makes his point about man's inhumanity to man eloquently, then moves on with the story.
He uses humour appropriately - demonstrating a wonderful turn of phrase, which creates many memorable and humorous moments, without you ever feeling as though he is poking fun at the horrors of war. He perfectly captures the black humour of the Tommy in the trenches and uses it to his full advantage. If you thought Blackadder Goes Forth was good - sensitive to its subject matter, but still funny - wait till you get a load of this. Elton's return to the trenches shows that he has matured immensely since he penned the scripts for Blackadder's last stand. It's a very intelligent book and surprisingly relevant to current circumstances. Questioning the "wisdom" of wars and the roles various people play in it; questioning the sense of justice in one man being investigated for murder amidst scenes of mass slaughter, it is thought-provoking as well as entertaining.
Another reason The First Casualty works well is because the array of characters they are all well-written, well-rounded and convincing. They cover a range of political beliefs and ideas and, whilst Elton makes it quite clear where his own sympathies lie, all are given the chance to air their views and it never feels as though you are having politics rammed down your throat. Characters all behave in exactly the way you would expect them to, bouncing off each other, forming alliances, stabbing each other in the back (literally and metaphorically) and generally behaving like real people.
Unlike some murder mysteries, the "mystery" aspect of the plot is very well handled. Occasionally, you can get such books with labyrinthine plots which have a highly unlikely resolution. Their only aim is to confuse, bamboozle and, too often, frustrate. Other times, they have overblown plotlines, packed with ridiculous red herrings of "obvious" suspects, before it turns out to be the man you were briefly introduced to for three lines on page 17, which is deeply unsatisfying. Elton, though, manages to maintain a pretty decent fine balance between the two. It's not the most complicated of mysteries and most people will probably work out fairly quickly the "who", if not necessarily the "why". Clues are laid out well and their significance explained at regular intervals, in case you didn't spot them, so you're never left scratching your head in confusion.
It's difficult to find much to criticise about The First Casualty. I can only think of two things that might put people off. First of all, although politics is not rammed down your throat, this is a book which has a very definite, if subtle political voice. Some people may find this distasteful - particularly if Elton's politics don't match your own. Others may also baulk at treating the First World War in a semi-comic fashion or to make a wider political point. But, as someone far wiser than I once remarked, if we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.
The only other problem might be that, rightly or wrongly, people have a view of Ben Elton that stems from his initial success in the 80s - as a raving, ultra-left wing, coarse, alternative comedian. For some, this image is so indelibly etched in their brains that they find it difficult to accept anything he does - assuming that his books will also be full of that same coarseness and political diatribe. But you know what? If these personal prejudices stop them from reading this book, then that's their loss, because they are missing out on a superbly well-written, funny and interesting book.
The First Casualty
Black Swan, new edition, 2006
Available new from Amazon for £5.49 or second hand from 1p
© Copyright SWSt 2008
The First Casualty Ben Elton
Firstly, a confession. I didnt mean to buy this book; I wanted the Elton book about the reality TV show (Dead Famous) and picked this up by mistake and didnt realise the error until I started reading the first pages. I mention this because one of the joys of reading is the anticipation you feel before starting a new book and realising this wasnt the book I wanted set me back and may have influenced my thoughts of it, particularly in the first few days of reading.
Ben Elton doesnt really need much of an introduction as one of the things he is most famous for is how prolific he is. Hes written several sitcoms, hosted Saturday Night Live and enjoyed a successful stand up career. Hes scripted a number of West End plays and written a string of best seller books. Theres not much I dont like about Ben Elton and his work and having read a couple of his early novels several years ago I was looking forward to getting reacquainted.
The story is set during World War One and revolves around Douglas Kingsley, an inspector with the Metropolitan Police. When we first meet Kingsley he is on trial for being a conscientious objector. An intelligent and articulate man he is also rather arrogant and his logical and moral defence alienates the court and he is sent to Wormwood Scrubs, a far tougher internment than most objectors receive and not a good place for a former police inspector to find himself. Via an unsympathetic warden and vengeful guard Kingsley is forced to share a cell with three violent criminals with whom he is only too familiar seeing as he is the one who had them convicted in the first place. With the warders turning a blind eye he is subjected to vicious beatings and as he begins his third stint in the prison hospital he knows that he must somehow escape or he will surely be dead sooner rather than later.
At the same time in Flanders a decorated war hero who is recuperating from shell shock is shot dead. A bolshie private with whom the officer had earlier had an altercation stands accused of the crime but the facts dont add up and a public relations disaster that could destroy morale at home and at the front is looming. The army needs to resolve the problem quickly and quietly. With a new identity Kingsley is sent to the front to carry out the investigation and is faced with the full horrors of war. With witnesses dying and evidence being lost he has a race against time if he is to find the killer.
Not having read any of his work for several years I may have missed the direction his writing has taken recently but while I expected the book to be funny, or at least satirical, it is neither and is in fact a fairly straightforward character piece. When Ben Elton writes a novel about WWI it is hard to ignore all the baggage and preconceptions that you have from the Blackadder Goes Forth series and this casts quite a large shadow that is hard to shake of for several chapters. You keep expecting to hear echoes of that comedy in the characters or the dialogue but he steers well clear. In one scene early in the book a company CO is addressing his officers at a regimental dinner and states that he is proud to be serving with them and that he couldnt wish to go forward with a finer body of men. Youre just crying out for someone to pipe up with soon to be fine bodies of men but of course no one does.
Its impossible to know how hard Elton finds it to write without throwing in some gags or the odd ludicrous character but while the story doesnt contain any jokes that I can recall it doesnt reach any great depths of darkness or pathos either. Rather it coasts along at a gentle pace, never really generating any urgency or excitement along the way.
The book isnt bad but I found myself disappointed for several reasons. As a historical novel it falls short of the level of detail you would normally expect and you learn nothing new of the times. As crime fiction there arent enough twists or surprises to keep you guessing, in fact you can pretty well see the path the book will follow and who did what by about half way through. Whats left is a character piece, but again it falls short as most of the characters are never really fleshed out and have no real depth. I would almost call it a lazy book and I dont think Elton spent a lot of time researching it. Thats not to say its ill-informed, he is a pretty clever and well read man and would not be guilty of that, its just that it feels as if it were written off the cuff.
The characterisation is surprisingly generous and no one is mocked or satirised. Even the aristocratic officers, so often the butt of jokes in Blackadder, are treated here with reverence and the ones we meet are brave, enthusiastic and loved by their men. The narrative only comes alive when describing several infantry attacks on the German lines and Elton captures the panic, fear and bravery passionately. These passages reminded me of Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, an otherwise turgid book that contained a spellbinding description of infantry charges and trench warfare.
Ive been quite critical about this book but really all I can say is that it passed the time and nothing more, it trickles along to a predictable conclusion and personally I like my books to have a bit more about them than that.
When I think of famous people that I dislike, Ben Elton is very high on my list. Once a bastion of anti-Thatcher working class humour he has sold out so badly that he now represents everything that is wrong with New Labour's horribly false façade. You get the feeling that if you shook his hand, you may just lose your watch. No matter how much I hate the man it seems that he finds success and money in everything he does from comedy, books, film and theatre yuck! What makes me even sadder is I thought his earlier books such as Gridlocked and Stark were fantastic slices of funny fiction. Over the years as he grew increasingly unbearable; so did his books with the awful Dead Famous and Blast from the Past. However, like a fat child drawn towards a 99p ready meal, I still decided to read one of his latest attempts and I was surprised.
Douglas Kindsley is a disgraced police officer who is jailed after refusing to go to war on intellectual principle during WW1. He is only saved from being killed by an investigation that only he can be trusted in solving. A Captain has been killed near the front line trenches and this was murder, not war. Normally, the matter may have been brushed under the carpet, but this Captain happens to be a famous poet and a Lord. Can Kindsley, armed with a new identity, discover who the murderer is without undermining his principles?
The first success that Elton achieves in this book is the creation of a sympathetic and well written main character. Rather than making Kindsley a perfect liberal, Elton has made him extremely flawed. Although as a reader you admire his stance you can not help thinking that he is an arrogant man. The fact that he abstained from the war may seem wise to many, but if you think about how many men sacrificed their lives in WW1 you have to wonder about the character of someone who refuses to fight.
Elton manages to extend this great characterisation through to the other characters that appear in the book, giving the war a human face. No one is painted as a hero or villain; everyone is seen in shades of grey. A couple of stand out characters are Shannon and Nurse Murray. Shannon is a soldier who does the dirty work for the government. He is in charge of Kindsley and is thoroughly nasty man. Even though he is British and a good solider, the fighting has caused him to lose a lot of his humanity. Nurse Murray is also an interesting character as she struggles to keep men alive near the front. She is promiscuous and a suffragette, so there is a lot more going on than just a two dimensional love interest.
The detail of character extends into the creation of a story that actual makes the reader want to carry on. With any book set during a war it can be tempting to write about the events, rather than concentrate on a story. The book takes place on the front, but also has a large proportion set back in Britain. This gives Elton the chance to explore themes centred on those left behind. The pace of the book is great throughout and leads the reader to a gripping conclusion. Although large parts of the book concentrate on the home front, this actually adds to the realism in the book. It is a story about a very British murder, just in incredible circumstances. Even though it is a war book the story does not actually contain many Germans as Elton puts more emphasis of the enemies within, be they murderers or the attitudes of everyday people.
The main issue that seems to have cropped up from critics of the book is that it feels very light for a historic novel. To an extent this is true as it does feel like history-lite. For fans of war novels this books may be far too flimsy as it concentrates on one story rather than the war as a whole. However, I think that Elton has pitched this book at the correct level. It acts as a great introduction to people who are interested in history, but find it hard going. Throughout The First Casualty Elton introduces aspects of the war and describes them in a way that a non-history fan can enjoy and understand. This means that for people with a vested interest in the genre, many parts may seem too simple. The war happened almost 100 years ago and very few veterans still survive. This means that the war may slip from peoples minds. Books like this may act as a fantastic introduction for people to investigate the history of their own country. If Elton is able to achieve this, I for one would be happy.
There is one area that I do feel did detract somewhat from the book and that was the luck and stubbornness of Kindsley towards the latter parts of the book. I felt that the character was stretched by Elton into doing things just to fit the story dynamic. However, even if this part of the book can be described as somewhat flawed it did work to draw the story to its conclusion. I will let Elton of this time as placing Kindsley in unreal situations allows the reader to see different aspects of the war.
So overall I found this book to be a thought provoking, exciting and excellent novel. It is unlikely to win any prizes as the most in-depth, or best written, piece of historic fiction, but as an entertaining read its tops. The First Casualty should be seen as a first step into reading more about a war that helped define 20th Century Europe. Elton skims across several important areas of the war, not to ignore them, but to highlight their importance to the reader in looking back on their own history. Elton manages to capture the spirit of the war in a respectful way whilst still managing to make the story feel modern and informative. If everything that Elton did was this good, maybe I could start to like him again!
Author: Ben Elton
Price: amazon uk - £5.59
play.com - £5.49
Ben Elton writes topical thrillers with a message: be it the environment, oil industry, celebrity cult or legalisation of drugs, there is always some underlying theme or idea that is explored.
'First Casualty' seems to be the most ambitious and the least 'of the moment' so far. It is set during the Great War and the theme it explores, is, suitably, the moral conundrums surrounding the war and the anti-war stance taken by the novel's main protagonist, Douglas Kingsley.
Kingsley is a conscientious objector, but not a pacifist: he simply (?) thinks THIS war is stupid and illogical. Apart from that he is a police inspector and a man whose skills are matched by his self-belief and whose intellectual rigor is matched by his supreme arrogance. No wonder that his beliefs and his attitudes see him imprisoned in disgrace. He is rescued from the imminent risk of death at the hands of the prison bullies by an assignment to investigate a politically sensitive murder of an officer at the facility for the shell-shocked in France.
The story that follows includes Bolshevik soldiers, a dashing suffragette nurse, sadistic captain, the love that dares not speak its name all set against the background of trench warfare, rotting corpses, mud, lice-ridden uniforms and death, death, death, and more death. Most of the soldier characters Kingsley encounters in his investigation don't survive, and overall the picture of the life and death in the trenches and around them seems pretty convincing. I have no idea how good Elton's research actually is; but the detail and the overall feel seems rather realistic; from latrines and showers to nigh time rides to Field Punishment to the camaraderie to the desperation.
The story is, essentially, of a highly principled and very task-oriented, competent individual who engages in a pursuit which - considering the circumstances - doesn't seem to make much sense to anybody. What is the meaning of murder if thousands are slaughtered daily? What is a point of freeing somebody from unjust accusation if the same person is going to be sent back to the trenches and most probably killed soon? How is a person that doesn't agree with the war going to behave - and feel - in the heat of the battle, when faced by the kill or be killed dilemma?
All in all 'First Casualty' is a novel posing serious moral and political dilemmas and painting a detailed picture of a socially and historically significant moment. It's also a very enjoyable, fats paced thriller and it contains a bit cheesy but acceptably diverting love story angle. The characters, including the main hero, are, as in other Elton novels, not exactly lovable but well drawn and engaging.
'First Casualty' is also a novel whose emotional impact was for me pretty much nil. I was interested in the social history (I still wonder if the fierce patriotism and support for war could have been possibly so strong in Britain of 1917) and enjoyed the murder-investigation plot, but despite realistically described carnage and drudgery of the trenches, despite the well pointed hypocrisy of the 'management' and almost-satirical portraits of many typical characters; I didn't care.
Maybe that is what Elton intended: after all the events he describes are quickly fading from memory into the history and although not far enough yet to easily make for a colourful background to a historical romance or crime caper, they will get there. Time blunts the seriousness of slaughter. Very few get offended by a medieval crime romp set against the realities of the Black Death.
I am not sure if 'First Casualty' was supposed to be just that: a fun murder mystery in interesting circumstances. There is virtually no comedy in the novel (there seems to be less and less from book to book) and he uses a lot of authentic material and references. But if there was more than token attempt at approaching a serious subject, then it didn't work.
My personal opinion is that the lack of emotional impact is simply due to the writing. Ben Elton writes well: his text is fluent, clear, well argumented, well composed and very, very easy to read. He writes like a good reporter or a science writer should write - but he doesn't really write literature; thus lack of the emotional impact.
Despite the above reservation, 'First Casualty' is a decent book; pop-fiction with a message is perhaps the best label for it, easy to read and educational to those unacquainted with realities of the WW1; but don't expect more than a 'normal Elton' just because the context is more weighty.
The grim setting and carnage scenes might unsettle some readers though Elton style means it never strays into the realm commonly described as 'harrowing'; there is sex (reasonably sensitively described) as well as 'language' aplenty (in context).
The novel costs £10.79 for a hardback on Amazon; 389 pages, easily read in couple of evenings.
It is Flanders in June 1917: a British officer and celebrated poet, is shot dead, killed not by German fire, but while recuperating from shell shock well behind the lines. A young English soldier is arrested and, although he protests his innocence, charged with his murder. Douglas Kingsley is a conscientious objector, previously a detective with the London police, now imprisoned for his beliefs. He is released and sent to France in order to secure a conviction. Forced to conduct his investigations amidst the hell of The Third Battle of Ypres, Kingsley soon discovers that both the evidence and the witnesses he needs are quite literally disappearing into the mud that surrounds him. Ben Elton's tenth novel is a gut-wrenching historical drama which explores some fundamental questions. What is murder? What is justice in the face of unimaginable daily slaughter? And where is the honour in saving a man from the gallows if he is only to be returned to die in a suicidal battle? As the gap between legally-sanctioned and illegal murder becomes evermore blurred, Kingsley quickly learns that the first casualty when war comes is truth.