Ben Elton

 

The First Casualty

 

This book deserves closer analysis than my hazy recollections of a few months ago, but life being what it is this will have to do.

In Douglas Kingsley, Elton creates perhaps the least sympathetic character possible as his war hero: a conscientious objector. I don't know that this book could have even been published closer to the time of its WW1 setting (well, I'm sure it couldn't have given some of the sexual content taken for granted less than a century on), but community attitudes have altered pretty radically since then. That being said, Elton's point is well made that while you'd never know it by reading a thousand other fictional books in this setting, there were conscientious objectors in the Great War, not to mention communists, homosexuals, Irish nationalists and feminists. Many stories set in wars are well researched, but it is refreshing to have a wider, more representative population. While he does have something of a barrow to push, Elton gives a deal more respect and time to conventional stiff-upper-lip conservatives in this book than more traditional war story writers give to his non-mainstream protagonists. Perhaps it would have been better if Elton had have allowed us an equally articulate pro-war character, the presentation of Kingsley's case is so strong as to border on a straw man attack, but, granted, we have been gorged with the pro-war argument from so much media for so long, in the scheme of things this is hardly going to tip the balance. In a similar spirit I'll grant him some clunky expository dialogue as Tommies summarise contrasting views on the reasons for the war: this conversation feels retrofitted, but it's interesting to even hear some alternative perspectives.

Elton's always had wit, but he's managed to surprise me on occasion by the quality of his writing (such as `Popcorn'). It's not merely a comedian exploring an alternative source of revenue; he can actually stand up creditably against many dedicated novelists. `The First Casualty' has a workable crime plot, historically viable settings, engaging characters and some thought provoking themes. While Elton started, for example, like David Baddiel, I don't know that the latter will similarly be able to reach a point where he can write a whole book without a few chapters of observational comedy (mostly about penises) to get us through. It's actually a testament to Elton's craft that I can write such a positive review about an author who probably passionately holds some views that I'd disagree with. Moreover I suspect we could still have a conversation.

Thus while it teeters on the edge now and then, the book doesn't descend into a mere propaganda pamphlet. Elton includes some interesting opinion, but never at the cost of writing a cohesive, engaging story. Kingsley's conscientious objection, for example, is not merely a veiled political statement from the author: it's a vital aspect of this character's at times irritatingly uncompromising character, and crucial to the appealing (if pretty implausible) plot device of dropping the most unlikely investigator, and investigation, into the Western front trenches. The book opens very well, taking us straight to a gripping time, place and person. The initial technique of cutting to different characters and locations is effective (as opposed to transparent and/or irritating as in some other books). The characters aren't throwaways, there are capable action and investigation scenes along the way, and the resolution is satisfying.

The book isn't flawless. While Elton is so careful about his historical settings, it does become absurd that just about every experienced veteran Kingsley finds himself on the battlefield with gets himself killed, generally at the instant they are talking to him. I'm not saying death scenes are implausible on a battlefield, but there is something of the Rambo school of war where the hero stands untouched in a hail of bullets while all about him fall. I also get frustrated at how frequently authors blithely kill off characters described as experts: suddenly in one week three veterans of a dangerous profession all are killed nearby the inexplicably surviving rookie: it pushes the effect too hard and foregrounds the deliberate manipulation of the author (it's nicer when you don't realise). Another irritation is some incongruous immaturity. In making the nurse character something more than an extra Elton must have thrown around some options: could I make her an orphan? A spiritualist like Conan-Doyle? Perhaps a politician's daughter? Or a devout missionary who'd returned from China? Wait, hang on, I've got it... she could be ... a nymphomaniac. Gee, thanks Ben: is there some legal stipulation that all British comedians have to make some sort of homage to Benny Hill in each work? Even a powerful one about war? He could argue that this is just another of his balancing characters, a foil for all the typical `good girls' of the representations of the era, but I don't think he'd get away with it. This is gratuitous. It's disappointing, and hardly the sort of thing to reassure his female readers that he's not into perpetuating degrading male stereotypes of women (What? I'm suggesting that a nymphomaniac nurse is a degrading stereotype?! Why, the very idea etc.). It errs towards the common gauche genre of stories with an immoral.

These weaknesses, however, are aberrations: my praises for this book are far greater than my objections. There is a lovely mix of the sweet conventions of good storytelling alongside sustaining historical and political meat. Elton does a few things very well here, any one of which would probably have been enough to make a decent read.

 

January 2007