As I am teaching a play set during the First World War I thought now was as good a time as any to do some reading of other WW1 books and Ben Elton’s The First Casualty is one that I have recently seen reviewed and was recommended to me as well. It is June 1917 and, whilst being treated for shell shock in a hospital not far from the Front, Viscount Abercrombie is shot and killed. Abercrombie is a celebrated pro war poet and so his murder could be viewed as an attack on the war, so it is reported as a death in the line of duty. Meanwhile in England, Police Inspector Douglas Kingsley is sent to prison for refusing to fight in a war he sees no logical reason for. Prison is an unforgiving place for a conscientious objector, especially one who used to be in the police force, so he is certainly in for a tough time, providing he stays alive long enough to serve his sentence. Luckily, Kingsley is just the man the Government need to investigate a murder that nobody is supposed to know about and if he solves it he knows he can disappear into obscurity. Kingsley, under an alias, is sent to the Front, the one place he didn’t want to be, and experiences the war and all its devastation first hand.
I love books about WW1 and I say this every time I blog about a book set or written during this era. The a First Casualty is no exception. The descriptions of war and life in the trenches are vivid and truly tragic. I think Elton has created a believable perception of the war and how difficult and fraught life at the Front had become once the initial gun hoe glamour of war had worn off. There were various different social perspectives captured in this novel; the Suffragette who has been liberated to a certain extent because of the war; the Bolsheviks who are fighting in a war they don’t believe in; the conscientious objector who sees no logic to such a pointless war and the disillusioned poet who no longer believes in the war he so public ally supported. I felt the characters were like a microcosm of society’s views and even if their viewpoint wasn’t fully explored or they only appeared on a page or two it was interesting to have a snapshot of various beliefs and events that were happening outside of the battlefields.
The First Casualty is an historical crime novel and yes there was a crime to solve, but I don’t feel this took much precedent when I was reading it. The main plot from my perspective was Kingsley discovery of the reality of war and how being in such an intense situation can make a man do things he never thought he would. It was a good murder plot and I did the usual ‘who dunnit’ guessing game, but I wasn’t as interested in that part of the narrative. I think my favourite thread surrounded Nurse Murray, who was a fierce feminist and Suffragette who was subjected to ‘the cat and mouse’ treatment of dealing with Suffragettes who used more aggressive forms of protest. I haven’t read much about the Suffragettes but I found it an engaging part of the narrative and it has made me eager to seek out fiction and possibly non fiction based on the Suffragette Movement. I particularly liked how ‘modern’ she was in her attitude towards sex and the relationships she had with men; I find it almost bizarre that I never really thought about women having a casual approach to such things one hundred years ago, but then again they much have.
On the whole I would recommend The First Casualty. I don’t think it was as amazing as my colleague said, however it was enjoyable and has made me eager to take my reading in a different direction so what more could I ask from a novel.