The First Casualty, by Ben Elton

the-first-casualtyI haven’t read a lot of fiction this year. Most of my reading has been First World War non fiction.

The books I’ve read have included comprehensive histories, biographies and the diaries of participants in the war. Maybe I needed a break from history books, so when I came across The First Casualty by Ben Elton in a second hand shop, I thought it could give me a short break from my ongoing heavy reading program, without moving too far away from the historical topic.

This is only the second Ben Elton book I’ve read, the first being Stark, his debut novel released in 1989. I enjoyed that book at the time, but I recall how reviewers commented on Elton’s habit of preaching through his fiction.

There are clear moments of preachiness in the The First Casualty . Occasionally dialogue seems to be like mini lectures on the politics of the time, expressing views on the war’s causes and how it was being fought. Views that may perhaps be more obvious now with the hindsight we have. I assume some of those views align with Elton’s (considering the little familiarity I have of the author). While some might see that as a negative, its not something that bothers me.

Despite that political commentary, I find the book also shows there are no neat answers. Even the best of intentions, with every attempt to do the right thing, don’t always work out in the desired way in the middle of armed conflict.

Passchendaele burial party

Passchendaele burial party

The book is set at the time of the battle of Passchendaele in November 1917. It follows a London police inspector Douglas Kingsley and his undercover investigation into the murder of a British officer serving in France. It seems to be a cut and dried case. The murderer and the weapon used have been determined, so why the need to investigate further?

The murder investigation gives the story a framework that allows Elton to explore the moral ambiguities and contradictions of war through Kingsley’s experience.

Things aren’t going well for Kingsley when he is introduced. His opposition to the war on grounds of “logic” instead of the usual conscientious objector’s appeal to pacifism aren’t being viewed kindly in the court where his case is being heard. Almost half of the book takes us through the process of his journey from that court house to a posting in the war zone that his conscience had driven him to avoid.

The brutality and futility of war are central themes of the book which is at times graphic in its portrayal of the violence of trench warfare. After reading so many histories of WWI I found that depiction of violence necessary. Apart from one incident in the book I didn’t find any of the violent episodes excessive. But even that single incident, that I felt hovered on the border of being gratuitous, had a purpose within the plot, playing an important part in Kingsley’s gathering of evidence.

A scene that I found less redeemable was a sex scene, that in the overall story had no role in the story’s progression, apart from giving Elton the chance to portray “liberated” suffragette attitudes. With that scene I felt Elton was following an overused formula but tried to give it a politically correct twist by using suffragette references.

After an extended diet of history, The First Casualty was an enjoyable snack that didn’t stray too far from the rest of my current reading habits.

I appreciated the break it gave from books that can often be a struggle to get through, books lacking the page-turner character of a well-paced fiction story. Elton’s book DID have that “can’t put it down” quality, with an intriguing but flawed protagonist thrown into a progression of interesting situations, and rather than being a distraction from my WWI studies, it has been an enhancement.