Ben Elton






Random House Australia, Black Swan Books, 2006
Reviewed by Kerrie Smith

Crime/Historical Drama

The setting is 1917 and the Great War grinds on, with the youth of the British Empire and Germany being sacrificed on the Somme. Despite the disillusionment creeping in, both on the war front and at home, those who do not volunteer are still regarded as cowards. Douglas Kingsley, an inspector in His Majesty's Metropolitan Police in London, finds himself in gaol when he declares that the war offends his sense of logic. Rejected by his wife and condemned as a conscientious objector, Kingsley is secretly sent to Flanders to investigate the murder of a British officer at Ypres. Not only a war hero, young Viscount Alan Abercrombie was also renowned as a poet. His father, Lord Abercrombie, is the Opposition Chief Whip in the British Parliament and he wants his son's murderer hunted down and shot.

The setting of the Great War allows Elton to ask questions about the importance of investigating the murder of one man when so much bloodshed is occurring all the time. The horrific stage that this war had reached in the trenches and mud of the Somme allows the reader to view the issue of crime in war, as distinct from war crimes, from many angles. Elton's descriptions are detailed, rich, authentic, and informative and yet through all is woven the thread of who killed Abercrombie and why. Kingsley's pursuit of the truth, his need to question witnesses about to die themselves in the next assault, and his personal need to conduct a thorough investigation, bring into this re-creation of history those elements that we who read murder mysteries enjoy. At the same time we feel we can trust Elton's depiction of history. For Kingsley the quest is of the utmost importance for he undergoes a sort of 'baptism of fire' and emerges himself a war hero, but also a murderer. Alan Abercrombie was far from the first casualty in the Great War, so, even in the title of the book, Elton has created a little puzzle for us to ponder.

Many of us have already met author Ben Elton through his television work as the writer of shows such as The Thin Blue Line and Blackadder. What is amazing about Elton is the variety in his work, from comedy to musicals to serious fiction. THE FIRST CASUALTY is his 12th novel. His first was STARK (1989) and in 1996 he won a Dagger Award for POPCORN. Already his next novel CHART THROB (2006) is available. For other titles by Ben Elton check .

July 2006 review, first published on Murder and Mayhem


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