9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
A mostly successful departure for Ben Elton,
This review is from: The First Casualty (Paperback)
Before I start I must admit to being a huge fan of Ben Elton; great stand-up comedian, brilliant TV comedy writer (well, The Young Ones and Blackadder anyway) and a top novelist. So I approached The First Casualty with a lot of optimism and, for the most part, was not disappointed.
The first thing that strikes you about the book is its largely serious tone. Fans of Elton will be used to plenty of laugh-out-loud moments but this novel eschews the successful formula of his previous books and, for the most part, plays it straight. It is a credit to Elton that this in no way prevents the book from being a very entertaining read. Not that there aren't moments of sharp humour in it; some of the dialogue involving the main protagonist - Douglas Kingsley - is terrifically funny and very believable.
So, what of the plot? Well, here is the book's one slightly weak point. Previous novels by Elton have had great plots that have you racing to the end before flooring you with a masterful twist. Here the plot - a disgraced policeman sent to the Front in WW1 to investigate a murder - seems a little thin and somewhat pedestrian and the denouement is unconvincing.
The strength of the book lies in the emotional involvement with the characters. I found myself really caring what happened to Kingsley and this is what made the book a page-turner. It is impossible not to sympathise with his principled stand against the war and we share in the brutality of his punishment in prison. Other characters such as Nurse Murray and Captain Shannon add colour and are nicely constructed to provide contrast to Kingsley and will be vaguely familiar to fans of Blackadder Goes Forth! The supporting characters also allow Elton to cover issues such as women's rights and the treatment of the working classes at the time of WW1. Typically, Elton counter-balances his naturally left-leaning views with humorous digs at the more extreme elements of the movements he covers.
I cannot comment on the historical accuracy of the book but the portrayal of life (or, more likely, death) in the trenches of Ypres is vivid and is another of the book's strengths. The "madness of war" may be an obvious subject but Elton handles the material adroitly and with sensitivity.
Overall Elton - whether intentionally or not - has sacrificed plot for character development and a bit of a history lesson; and as far as I am concerned, this is not bad thing. Not his best book, to be sure - my vote would go to High Society - but a thoroughly satisfying need nonetheless.