First casualty?

I'm not altogether sure what to make of Ben Elton's First World War detective novel The first casualty. I came to the novel with fairly high hopes. I've enjoyed quite a few of Elton's early novels, and was especially impressed by Inconceivable (later filmed as Maybe baby) which managed to be a brilliantly funny book, while also dealing with the subject of infertility sympathetically and seriously.

I was also hugely impressed (who could not be) by the brilliant moving final sequence of Blackadder goes forth. Ok, I know this owes as much to the editor's art as the writer's, but still...The sometimes savage satire of the last series of Blackadder made it all too clear what Elton's thoughts were on the War, that perhaps more than any other, was such an unspeakable waste of life. Hardly surprising as Elton's grand-dads fought on opposite sides of the conflict but, I guess, would ultimately have held very similar views.

The first casualty should be very good, but somehow it just falls short. Douglas Kingsley, a top detective, is in prison after voicing his objections to the conflict and refusing to fight. He's released from jail in unusual circumstances, and sent to the Western Front to investigate the murder of a British soldier hero. The irony of investigating murder while men are being casually murdered every day is not wasted on Kingsley. Kingsley is forced to wrestle with his own conscience and thoughts on the morality of war while he tries to save one man, only for the same man to be sent back into the killing fields of Flanders.

It's a nice idea - how do you detect a murder, when there is death all around? But it doesn't quite work. Kingsley's metamorphosis from conscientious objector to gung-ho action hero feels clumsy (even if it is necessary for the action). The two female central characters are poorly portrayed, they seem to be more caricatures than flesh and blood women, while the villain is over the top with no saving graces. Of course it may be that Elton was hoping to portray the villain as being irreparably damaged by the war, but I suspect that the villain always would have been the nasty person he was portrayed as.

Where Elton does shine is in his depiction of the war, the scenes on the Western Front, the day-to-day lives of the Tommies serving in the field. All this detail however with little characterisation can sometimes lead you to feel that you're reading a very lively history text-book rather than a novel. First casualty has far more detail than, say, Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong but in spite of its stunning detail it will be Birdsong that will linger on in the mind rather than The first casualty. Casualty is brilliant factually, but fails to engage on an emotional level.

It should be good, I so wanted it to be good, but it just didn't quite hit the mark. Such a shame.


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