Sunday, 4 May 2008

A Wee Review - Past-Mortem by Ben Elton

Mike Stone is back with another review. Seemed only right that he, an Englishman should review the first Brit crime novel. Take it away, Mike!

In Past-Mortem Ben Elton addresses the subject of bullying. Why some people are natural-born bullies while others are natural targets, lurching from one crisis to another. The book kicks off when a hulking brute of a builder is found dead in his own bedroom, stabbed to death. Except the puncture wounds are too insubstantial to have caused internal damage. So how did the victim die? The murder weapon was coated with a rare frog poison that stops blood from coagulating, that’s how. The victim took hours to bleed to death, while being stabbed constantly in the torso, limbs, eyes and genitals.

D.I. Newton knows this was not a one-off grudge killing. It’s just too neat. Days later a Tory MP is found dead in her bath; her body bleached bone-white, her hair dyed red, and her back broken. Newton is sure the two murders are linked, but what connects a builder with a high-flying MP? He needs to find out soon before the bodies pile up and he’s taken off the case.

Meanwhile he’s suffering the pangs of unrequited love, the object of his desires being his sergeant, Natasha. She’s blonde, attractive, sassy, and out of his league. So our hero takes solace in surfing the networking website, Friends Reunited. And it’s there he discovers not only a possible link between the murder victims, but realises he may also know the killer . . .

The fun in the early stages of this novel lies in the details of the grisly murders, trying to work out, for example, why a former Page Three model has her mouth cut up and horrifically stitched before being tied to a chair surrounded by mirrors. Why does the killer go to such lengths to make sure she starves to death with only her disfigured reflections for company? There are nothing as crass as guns or knives, or even enormous dildos (thank you, Mark Billingham), with or without razor blades embedded in them (and thank you, Val McDermid). The murders in Past-Mortem are the most creative since Vincent Price donned his Dr Phibes get-up.

In Newton we have someone we can immediately identify with, a testosterone soaked guy who can’t figure why the object of his desires should want to go home every evening to a gormless layabout named Lance. It’s Elton’s strongest suit: showing the pull of the id and the super-ego, or to put it bluntly, showing how our dicks can sometimes rule our heads. Some writers don’t allow their protagonists to deviate from what the reader comes to expect, and so we end up with someone slightly superficial, someone too good (or bad) to be true. Elton really digs exploring the duality of the human mind.

And yet sometimes his peripheral characters are stereotypes. The Tory MP is a snobby, middle-class bitch, out to screw everybody in her rise to a top government post. Natasha’s bullying boyfriend is a sexist, leather-clad biker who talks like a ficko, know wot I mean, like? And then there’s the Irish Catholic woman who prays for the death of English soldiers, whose husband goes on IRA fund-raising trips to Boston. It’s not that these people don’t exist in real-life, it’s just that they stick out as caricatures in a book where the central characters are so complex.

The subject of bullying and its long-lasting impact on lives is an emotional one, and although the author doesn’t pull his punches, he navigates his course with deftness and humanity, revealing more than a few uncomfortable truths along the way. Because Ben Elton, the writer of acclaimed TV comedies, writer of right-on ecocentric and mediacentric novels, the writer of stage plays and musicals, also writes a cracking whodunit.

I highly recommend Past-Mortem.

Michael Stone

Michael Stone was born in 1966 in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Since losing most of his eyesight to Usher Syndrome, he has retreated from your world to travel the dark corners of inner space. To put it more prosaically, he daydreams a lot.

Read more about Michael and his fiction here.

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