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The First Casualty - Ben Elton

What better day to review a book about World War One than Remembrance Sunday. The First Casualty by Ben Elton has been sitting on my tbr pile since the Christmas before last and I've been meaning to read it for ages. To be honest I'm glad I didn't as this week has seemed like the perfect time with so much else about the subject on the TV.

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First, a bit about the book. The story concerns one Douglas Kingsley, a senior policeman in London, who is imprisoned for being a conscientious objector during WW1. In the process he loses his family (wife and child) who disown him and is very badly mauled by both inmates and warders of Wormwood Scrubs. His death is 'arranged' and the next thing he knows he's on the way to Ypres to investigate the death of Alan Abercrombie, an officer and son of a cabinet minister, who is listed as 'killed in action' but who has in fact been murdered.

If you were expecting a simple crime story from this book (and I was) you'd be vastly mistaken. How silly of me to expect a man like Ben Elton to write a simple story! For those who don't know, Ben Elton first made his name in Britain as a stand-up comedian, the sort specialising in social and political commentary. Since then he's become a writer in earnest, of various TV series such as Blackadder and The Thin Blue Line, and books. He's not everybody's cup of tea but I like him because he says what he thinks and no messing. And that kind of describes this book really. He minces no words whatsoever when telling us of the opinions of policeman, Kingsley, and from the perspective of almost a hundred years, he makes a lot of sense. Of course, things are never *that* simple and, to his credit, he does stress that. Conditions at the front are also described very graphically. There are descriptions of ways to die in battle, injuries, bodily functions, sex, homosexuality, you name it. If you have a lot of sensibilities then this may not be the book for you. On the other hand if you can stand it, and are interested in WWI, then this book is a real gem.

So, yes, I'm sure you've gathered that I liked this book. I took three days to read it when I expected to take five or six because it's a heftyish tome. It's a page turner and no mistake; I couldn't put it down. So, will I rush out now and get more books by Elton? Probably not, because this is not his normal kind of output - I think he usually writes modern novels and I'm not sure they'd be my thing. But The First Casualty most certainly was and I'm really hoping he'll do more in a similar vein in the future.

Comments

I've been wondering about Ben Elton as a writer, and I love the sound of this one, so after your review I might well rush out and try it. Thank you!
Yes, I've been wondering about Ben Elton as a writer too. The trouble is, I don't think this one is representative of his work, much of which doesn't really appeal. *This* one is worth reading though, imo. 'Thought provoking' would be the popular term for it.
Thanks for this, it sounds like a must read to me. I think I am more or less done with non-fiction reading on this topic but a good fic might just round things off nicely for me.
Conversely, I should do a bit of non-fiction reading on the subject! *g* Yes, I think this is one for you. You're a slasher so the gay bits won't worry you. He doesn't actually get to the front until about a quarter of the way through but those hundred pages are as interesting as the rest, imo. Plus, it is a very good crime yarn. Did you manage to catch My Boy Jack last night?
Yes, we did watch it and, in fact, Rob rang me bang on 9 o'clock to make sure we were watching it, too! I think going out there to Passchendaele at the age of 20 last month did make him aware that so many of the casualties were about his age. And the farm has a very extensive WW1 library which guests are encouraged to browse and he had been dipping into the book of the same name while we were there.
I thought the film was very well done in some respects, seemed reasonably authentic. What I just couldn't get my head around was that someone so apparently in the know as Kipling about what was really going on in terms of casualties out there (though why he involved at that level wasn't clear to me, since he didn't appear to have any political standing) would not only actively encourage a beloved son to go but actually pull strings to enable him to do so after not one but two rejections on medical grounds. And then be so surprised when said son was dead within weeks.
I suppose we're all more up together with the psychology these days, so we can sit there and recognise immediately that the parents were in denial, with severe guilt overtones, in refusing to accept that Jack was dead. I don't think "denial" was recognised then!
And it's impossible now, I suspect, especially in our media and communication rich world, for us to comprehend the spirit of patriotism at the time that led so many young men to enlist and their families to encourage them to.
The sentiments about the tragic losses to both sides which I have expressed a couple of times in my LJ recently would have caused outrage back then, no doubt. And I gather that part of the training for soldiers is to de-personalise the enemy, to turn their minds away from recognising their enemies as ordinary men like themselves, with wives and families. It's why fraternisation like the Christmas Truce were so heavily discouraged by the top brass. Had most of the ordinary Tommies come to perceive the men on the other side as just like themselves, there might have been a real risk of serious mutiny, as actually happened in the French Army at one point about then, leaving gaps in the Front Line which had to be filled by Tommies and Canadian and Anzac troops.
I have a feeling women, too, may be less susceptible to jingoism than men and certainly I thought the sister came across very well last night as the voice of doubt and realism.
But somehow, when Jack is about to embark for the Front and expresses the mildest of fears and his Dad says "Oh, you'll be alright", it sent a shudder down my spine. Kipling, more than most, must have known it probably wouldn't be. Denial again, I suppose.
But worth watching and I noticed they said that they would be issuing it on dvd soon with lots of extras such as cast interviews. I might put that on my Christmas list.
So, what did you think?