Books The First CasualtyBen Elton’s 2012 mystery, The First Casualty, is a fine combination of two popular literary genres: men at war and detective fiction.  That Elton sets his sleuthing in WW I England and at the Western Front is novel enough.  That the detective, Douglas Kingsley, is a Conscientious Objector, imprisoned and then kidnapped by British Intelligence to track down –during the third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele)— the truth about the death of a decorated officer, and highly esteemed patriotic poet, is imagination of a rare order.

That Inspector Kingsly is a CO in 1917 and, in the third year of the war, despised by all , including his wife, is not simply lightly filled-in background.  It is front and center.  The book opens with Kingsly defending his objections to the war in court rather than in a military court-martial as was typically the case for COs at the time.  Jeers and cat-calls of “coward” and “traitor” come from the gallery of the courtroom.  He finds the infamous “white feather” of cowardice placed on his pillow. Even in prison the tough cons, including Irish nationalists with no love for England, will not sit with him at meals. But he does not quit.  He returns to his arguments repeatedly during the course of the book.  In no other fiction I’ve read have the arguments for and against fighting in a war been so clearly and strongly laid out.  Interestingly, Kingsly does not claim to be a pacifist.  In his job as police inspector he had willingly sent criminals to the hanging judge.  But those, he explains, “I have known intimately … every detail of their character and actions.  But His Majesty’s Government knows none of those whom it kills, be they Germans, Turks, Austro-Hungarians or our own men.”

His objection to the war is one of logic and of scale.  The difference to him between justified killing –of criminals about whom much is known–  and the wholesale, indiscriminate slaughter of men by men, unknown to each other, is a theme throughout.

The novel opens in rain drenched Belgium, October, 1917, with the drowning in mud, of a heavily ladened soldier, a concise image of the war, on both sides.  A flash back takes us to Kingsly, his trial, and his wife and child.  During the trial he outrages the judge by countering the national emotional support for “brave, gallant, Belgium.” “It is strange,” he says, “we felt no similar obligation to the people of the African Congo whom ‘gallant’ Belgium had happily attacked, subdued and fiendishly brutalized.” When berated by the judge over his “intellectual” opposition to the war, he returns, ” It is intellect which informs a man what is right, and conscience that determines if he will act on that information.”

By chapter four we meet Viscount Abercrombie,  another major character, in a plush lavender-lamp sitting room, among homosexual men, many of whom are going back to the front the next morning.  There is a brief flirtation with another aspiring poet, Lt. Stamford, who we will meet again, at the front with the rest.

Kingsley is judged guilty of refusing induction and sent to prison. Abercrombie returns to the Ypres front and is soon found dead — declared killed in action by the authorities, but in fact murdered in a hospital bed.  The chief suspect is a well known “bolshevik” labor agitator, now an army private,  and Prime Minster David Lloyd George, a Welshman, fears that if news of his trial or guilt or especially, execution, reaches the famously militant Welsh miners they will strike, with devastating effect on the war effort.  Kingsly, the best inspector in the police force is needed, but he is in prison for treason.  What to do?

The Secret Service figures it out.  Kingsley is sprung and brought to London by his handler, one Lt. Shannon, about whom we will learn much.  Besides a very nicely drawn appearance of the Prime Minister personally impressing on Kingsley the importance of his work, the final major character awaits the inspector’s arrival in the war zone to appear.  She is vivacious, independent, suffragette, Nurse Kitty Murray — “a new woman” as she informs Kingsley several times.  And she proves it, whether in a tryst in rain drenched woods, or handling a motorcycle through the mud of the fighting fields.

With all players in place the detection pulls us forward: who killed Abercrombie? How? Why? When? Which suspects are not guilty?  Which non-suspects will be revealed? What is the truth in a zone where, as we all know, truth is the first casualty? The investigation takes Kingsley (now Marlow under a new identity) from brothels to the front line trenches, from interviews under shell fire to sexually charged encounters.  Though by nature a cool, intellectual type in the Sherlockian mode, he finds himself responding to “the thrill of battle” while trying to recover crucial evidence, surviving a shell blast just as he gets crucial information from a Colonel who dies in the same blast.

Even as he is pulled into battlefield killing, despite his conscientious objection to the war, he continues to make his argument to those around him, even to the Prime Minister himself:

The only truth that matters is that this war has so far counted for upwards of three quarters of a million casualties in Britain alone. Civilization is now entirely villainous, murdering its own, murdering all it sees. If I save this private Hopkins, he’ll be executed anyway, in battle. If Abercrombie had not been murdered he would have almost certainly have died in battle too.

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Elton gets much right about the time and place, and much that seldom enters histories of the war, or even other fiction.  Bolsheviks in the ranks and fear by the government of massive mining strikes have their pages.  Suffragettes and mention of their increasingly desperate actions to make their case for the right to vote; the cruel game of ‘cat and mouse’ played with them by the government (releasing hunger strikers from prison until they are recovered and then re-arresting them.) Homosexual officers in the ranks, fighting and dying with all.  He includes many details that I have not found in other novels or memoirs: that men were transported in ships and train cars previously used for horses, without much cleaning; the slowness of the trains to the front, packed with men, waiting hours on sidings; squatting around an improvised latrine carrying on conversations about the origins of the war; the difficulty of marching over cobbled streets; the disparities in soldier pay depending on date of service.  Elton has done his research well.

British in World War I (21)

British Troops to Front in box cars

As to the characters grappling with the experiences of the war, Kingsley’s opposition to it, internal struggles with fear and courage, The First Casualty does better than much war fiction.  The principle reason I have been immersing myself in WW I fiction and memoirs is to try to understand how writers, many of them combat veterans, represent war, and to think about whether these representations have any connection to the unquenchable human urge to wage war. If they write in admiration, suffused with courage and glory, does that writing influence the culture and make it ready for war?  If they write in opposition, exposing the cruelties, maimings and deaths, does that affect a culture in any meaningful way? In either case, is it the portrayals that convince, or fail to? Or do we read for confirmation gained elsewhere?  Can pages intended as cautionary — hell awaits you here! — be read as exciting, as a challenge — yes, and I will survive!

Elton, by his choice of a conscientious objector, goes way beyond most war writers, in allowing space for such an elemental question — to fight or not to fight? On what grounds? Are they universal, or purely personal?  He lets one or more soldiers overcome fear while in battle with a greater fear –of shame. “I don’t want to funk it in front of my mates.” He has a Colonel help Kingsley through shell-hole terror by telling him to pretend: “Making the effort to look brave takes your mind off being scared.”  He speaks of the superstitions men have to keep themselves safe: get ready for battle in precisely the same steps; count the intervals between shells being fired, the one missed will kill you.  He is honest about his main character not rising to his highest principles, coming to understand the “daily compromises a man must make,” to get through life.

As we try, along with Kingsley, to solve the mystery we are pulled through scenes of war and ruin with an interesting result.  Most war fiction is about the experience itself.  The scene is unvaried, mayhem and mud.  The emotions are high courage or high fear, mediated only by deep exhaustion. With little room for subtlety or nuance, with small space for the play of human emotion, even the best of war fiction sometimes has a monotony to it, even if a monotony of the monstrous.  By putting a murder investigation as the driver of the story we focus on it, and see the war in our peripheral vision — where we often notice things better than when face-to-face.  We read and work on the puzzle with enjoyment and some security that the bad guys will be found out,  while learning, or being reminded, of the facts of war. We read about soldiers faces in the mud without having our own pushed into it. Elton e is content, however, as most war fiction is, to say “mud,” “lice,” “body parts” and depend on the readers revulsion to fill in the rest, rather than to take us into another mind, contemplating the facts, grappling with emotions and trying to make sense of them. It’s good, but could be better, deeper.

As one of the most important choice many young people, indeed nations, are called to make, it would seem the struggle for answers about killing or not killing, serving one’s country or suspicious of its claims, would be much more widely, and deeply, explored in fiction. Though recent war fiction has found space for honest questions about the rightness of the war, and the reasons for fighting in it (The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien particularly comes to mind) there is yet to be written a book which probes opposition to war and fear of the consequences.

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As generally good as the book is, it suffers from some “anachronistic language leakage,”  when words, phrases and sensibilities appear which are part of 21st century life but seem unlikely, at least to be spoken about,  in 1917: a scene and description of a man masturbating, and ejaculating;  Nurse Murray’s (extreme) sexual frankness, exclaiming over Kingsley’s “bigness,” carrying a re-useable “baby barrier;” several scenes of “shitting” and no toilet paper. Not that any of this might not have happened but that the collapse of the famous Edwardian reserve into post-war openness was still in progress; it had not arrived at the normalization of shock in language and image we live in today.   To imagine oneself in a time and place years before our own and to reproduce likely ideas, language and relationships is one of the most difficult tasks a writer has.  While  Elton does a creditable job, there are a few misses, to my mind.

There is another style issue as well. Elton is British, and the men and woman of whom he writes are British, and speak British English.  Good enough.  We Americans should adapt. There are times, however, when “jolly good,” and “that’s topping!” seems very odd among fighting men, and “tally ho!” as a sexual exclamation by a woman, however liberated, even odder.  “Utterly done in though he was,” lacks the directness that brings us into the emotions of a man who has just survived being tossed in a surging wave of dirt and shrapnel. And what to make of “It’s utterly pongo!”?

I don’t know if such Britishisms contributed to another sense I had from time to time, of reading juvenile fiction, with simplifications and cliches where nuance and complexity are expected.  “Knowing that any noise they made … must bring instant death,” could almost be circled by a cartoon balloon. “He prayed withh all his might,” something from a middle-school book. The actions of Nurse Murray, with seduction, motorcycle and gun could well appear in a modern graphic novel or female superhero film. The too clever working out of Kingsley’s reappearance from the dead, and embrace by a wife who at least partially despised him, comes on suddenly;  a necessary bow tied on but as sort of a quick afterthought after the careful and thoughtful packing has been finished.  It’s all in fun, of course.  This is fiction.  It might have benefited, though,  from some of the jaded, noir devices a story like this suggests.  With all of this, still a novel I much enjoyed reading.

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 Not the least of which because war objectors are my own particular superheroes –seldom featured in any writing.  Except for the hard-to-find memoir from 20th and 21st century wars, they are scarcely mentioned in fiction, detective or otherwise.  As one of the most excruciating decisions a man may make, grappling with feelings of fighting a war, of shame or conscience, it would surely seem to be at the top of interesting possibilities of writerly interest.  Elton does an excellent job of laying out a man’s objections to war, and gives the counter-argument –that argued by the vast majority– its full weight.  Others in the novel despise or praise the war.  We get to think about the choice, and ask, what would a thoughtful person (me) do?  He is honest in not making his leading man too pure.  In love with his wife, but susceptible to another; opposed to the war but understanding its thrill; a believer in the law and justice but a participant in vengeance and satisfaction.

The use of Abercrombie and his poems as a measuring bar for how ideas and feelings about the war changed is excellent.  He seems to be a mash-up of Rupert Brooke, the “forever England” patriot, Sigfried Sassoon, the decorated poet-officer who published a letter of resignation as he moved to oppose the war, and Wilfred Own, whose ghastly poetic images of gas choked men are used as “quotes” in Abercrombie’s final poems.

All excellent stuff. The quibbles don’t undo the pleasure of the reading.  If you’re a reader who thinks that questions of war and individual conscience are important, if you want to share what an involved writer does with such questions in the crucible of battle, this is a book for you.

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By the way, I typically listen to readings of novels, often following along, or taking notes from a text.  The reader of The First Casualty, Glen McReady, is excellent, with voices, shadings and accents to enrich the story though, as above, perhaps too much vocal coloring from time to time, as when reading to children.  When a character is buried alive, fighting to figure out which way is up, we don’t need vocal underlining of “he was buried alive.” We get it.  I like my fiction neat, not with spritzer.  Even so, I’d certainly buy another book with McReady reading.

Tally ho!