The First Casualty, by Ben Elton

Floundering in Flanders fields
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The Independent Culture

Kingsley is dragged from prison and drafted into the army under a false name. He is sent to Flanders to find the murderer of an aristocratic officer who has apparently been shot by a shell-shocked soldier whom he disciplined. The victim was a member of the Lavender Lamp Club, where poeticising gays trail around in silk dressing-gowns.

I didn't think I would ever actually encounter phrases such as "unhand me!" and "his straining manhood" in a modern novel. Such staples of romance novels sit queasily alongside Elton's usual obsessions with defecation and masturbation, interspersed with undigested information. The effect is that of a Barbara Cartland story re-written by a dirty-minded schoolboy during a monotonous history lesson.

The preposterous plot is given no credibility by dragging in every historical signpost. Think 1917: think suffragettes, Ireland, Ivor Novello... The pages are filled with period detail, but the tone is often disastrously wrong. Lloyd George whizzes across the page, but that superbly articulate politician talks like a Welsh village idiot. Elton cannot abandon the cartoon techniques which served him well in Blackadder.

Nevertheless, his boldness in going over the same blood-soaked Flanders fields as Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker bears fruit - if the reader can plough through the first 200 pages. When the hero gets to the front line, the book moves onto a different plane. All the facetiousness knocked out of him, Elton records the terrible experiences through the eyes of a former conscientious objector. A hundred relentless pages fill the reader with pity and horror: partly because we know the dreadful details are based on fact, but also because they raise the writer's game. Under the force of such material, even Elton's cardboard characters take on human dimensions.

The metamorphosis does not last. Kingsley escapes from his duty and finds the (fairly obvious) solution to his mystery. The book falls back again into sniggering mode and the relentless fusillade of clichés resumes. Our policeman-soldier makes it back to Blighty and "the lips he had thought lost to him forever".

Yet a literary issue remains. If the First World War has such powerful resonances that it can impart genuine feeling to a work by Ben Elton, perhaps we credit its other fictional chroniclers with a transcendent power that properly belongs to the historical truth. Is it Faulks's skill that makes Birdsong so compelling, or the power of his material? Be grateful to Elton for demonstrating the "war effect".

Jane Jakeman's 'In the Kingdom of Mists' is published by Black Swan