BOOK REVIEW: THE FIRST CASUALTY
Ben Elton (2005)
POSTED 2:02pm | 21 JULY 2011
Inspector Douglas Kingsley is a highly regarded detective with the London police who finds himself arrested and imprisoned for being a conscientious objector to the war and refusing to serve. It's 1917 and the great war is calling all men to the front - those that refuse are branded cowards and locked up or shot. In France an English hero, Viscount Alan Abercrombie, popular officer and renowned poet, is shot and murdered while recuperating from shell-shock. The prime suspect is a young English soldier and Bolshevik (communist) found in the next room with the smoking gun who protests his innocence. The army officially announce that Abercrombie has in fact died in battle. With the potential to ignite a class war should the cover up be discovered, Kingsley is abducted from prison by the Secret Intelligence Service and offered a chance to escape his sentence if he agrees to travel to France and use his famous logic and detective skills to uncover the truth of Abercrombie's death and prevent a scandal. With nothing left to lose, Kingsley agrees, his death is faked, and he emerges on the Western Front as Captain Christopher Marlowe of the Military Police to begin his investigation.
All throughout his investigation Kingsley is forced to confront the reasons he objects to the war and the irony in the fact that he is now essentially serving in it despite his moral outrage that had led him to lose everything in the first place. In his search for clues and evidence he finds himself increasingly questioning what anyone is doing at all and whether it means anything - young men die instantly going over the top, or end up going insane if they make it back alive, and is saving an innocent man from the firing squad only to have him sent back to the front worth it? The pointless deaths weigh on Kingsley's mind, and he himself is forced to participate directly in the war in pursuit of the evidence.
There are lots of interesting ideas and characters that pop up throughout the course of the novel, and they are handled with a lightness of tone that focuses more on the characters thoughts rather than the actual weight of the situation, as opposed to the heavy hand that can be applied to books set in this type of setting. I feel this is one of the major strengths in Elton's writing - his ability to approach any subject without getting too heavy and thoughtful about it all - it allows the reader to notice the characters point of view, rather than the authors, and stops the story getting bogged down in politics or moral statements.
Essentially it's crime fiction - A detective novel along the lines of a Sherlock Holmes mystery - just with very different circumstances surrounding the investigator and investigation. Crime scenes are scrubbed clean to be re-used, murder weapons are re-issued and sent back to battle, and witnesses are blown up or shot dead, all for the war effort. Slowly Kingsley puts it all together, but the mystery is really just a motivator to tell the story of the cost of war and a man discovering and confronting things about himself that he had avoided his entire life
I enjoy Elton as a writer. He has an easy and efficient style that doesn't waste your time with endless metaphors or dwell on morbidity, but doesn't lack imagination or flare, and the story flows with great pacing. The best part though, rather unsurprisingly given his background, is the dialogue. Elton's characters come alive not through physical observations and thoughts but through brilliant dialogue. Some of the novels very best moments come when it is just two characters engaging in conversation - Kingsley with Nurse Murray (a young nurse who attended Abercrombie, a key witness, and a potential love interest) and Kingsley with Captain Shannon (Kingsley's SIS contact, a psychotic womanising spy who views just about everyone with disdain and contempt) are particular highlights.
Of course, being set amongst the bloodiest battles of World War I means there's no shortage of action as well, and Elton has managed to produce some exceptionally well written and exciting action set pieces that give the story a real kick. As I said earlier, the pacing is excellent, and the story flows effortlessly from action to romance to mystery, to quiet reflections, to spots of humour to spots of horror.
Overall, a highly enjoyable and engaging read. Where he would usually use strong satire (from what I have read of his novels) he has instead restrained himself to tell a gripping tale that, while not taking itself too seriously as to become heavy and dense, doesn't take things too lightly either. A nice, balanced novel about ordinary characters finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances.
Book shelf: With the other Ben Eltons