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by Ben Elton
Bantam, November 2005
389 pages
ISBN: 0593051114

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The day comedian Ben Elton turned his considerable talents to whodunits was a real boon for crime fiction addicts. The combination of his ingenious mind in imagining baffling plots in combination with his irreverent sense of humour, even though that is somewhat understated in this historical novel, THE FIRST CASUALTY, is a winning combination.

Chapter one opens on a scene in Ypres, Belgium, in 1917. It depicts the horrendous conditions there and the sheer hopelessness of valuing human life.

The second chapter describes the trial of Inspector Douglas Kingsley, formerly of Scotland Yard, a conscientious objector and a vain man who sees himself as highly principled. His high estimation of his principles is gradually eroded as the narrative progresses. Kingsley is visited in Brixton Prison by his wife, Agnes, who tells him she is divorcing him. She and their three-year-old son George will take her own family name, no longer wishing to be associated with the disgraced name of Kingsley.

A third location is the Lavender Lamp Club in London. Here homosexuals, including the prospective corpse, Captain Alan Abercrombie, are free to make use of available bedchambers for romantic trysts. At the club, the renowned poet, writer of jingoistic (and not very good) verse meets Lieutenant Stamford, soon to belong to Abercrombie's regiment. Stamford falls in love with Abercrombie. When Abercrombie succumbs to shellshock at Ypres and is hospitalised, the last-known person to visit the living poet is the smitten Stamford.

Kingsley, meanwhile, finds that the lot of a disgraced former inspector of Scotland Yard, imprisoned with many lags for whose imprisonment he was responsible, is very definitely not a happy one. He is severely beaten and is left in no doubt that when he is returned from the medical facility into the general prison population, his life will soon be painfully terminated.

Astonishingly, he is rescued by the army, after his death is faked, and he is given an opportunity to survive outside prison if he undertakes to investigate the murder of Abercrombie. Kingsley is not a coward so he assumes the identity of Captain Christopher Marlowe and sets off for Belgium and an investigation fit for the talents of the Yard's former best.

This really is an excellent character study. Kingsley's development and self-realisation is wonderfully portrayed. While he never changes his opinion of the illogicality of war, he becomes more understanding of the soldiers, the cannon fodder. He, who would never willingly pick up a gun to advance the war, finds himself in the front line charging the enemy, all in the name of his investigation.

He has to question his own pompous notion of himself as he sees exactly what he can rise -- or sink -- to in his investigative partnership with the delightful Nurse Kitty Murray. Elton handles well the end to the adventure with the impossible task of extricating Kingsley from the Marlowe character who has found himself mentioned in despatches and nominated for a medal.

The author has created some very unpleasant situations and certainly never shirks from detailed descriptions of bloody conflicts. His depictions of day to day living in the trenches is masterly. He creates an all too believable picture of the Great War and its horrors including the degrading effect it has on the participants, while at the same time creating an eminently credible man whose character is able to develop and come to terms with an unpleasant knowledge of himself.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, November 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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