First published back in November 2004, British comedian and author Ben Elton’s ninth novel ‘Past Mortem’ received modest reviews, with its sensitive subject matter being delivered in an Elton-esque light-hearted manner.

DLS Synopsis:
If only Detective Inspector Edward Newson was as successful with his love-life as he was in his job, then he wouldn’t have to go home to an empty house every night.  But it looks like that’s pretty much his lot in life.  At just 5ft 4, he’s hasn’t exactly got the most impressive of statures.  And he’s pretty sure that his carrot red hair doesn’t help his image much either.  But he’s managed to get by in life, relying more on his sharp wit and comical charm.  And so he just gets on with it.

In his job at the Metropolitan Police Force, Newson is assigned a new murder case involving the gruesome death of an oafish builder named Adam Bishop.  The middle-aged bully who was almost universally despised by all was found at his home, tied up and tortured to death from the infliction of 347 small cuts across his body.  Newson knows that this is an exceptional case from the outset.  To inflict such a prolonged episode of torture on someone shows that this isn’t just a rash in-the-moment crime.  It’s been carefully planned and perfectly orchestrated.

Together with fellow Detective Sergeant Natasha Wilkie, Newson begins to investigate the life of the brutish victim and the circumstances surrounding the murder.  Newson has a hunch that this is not the first time that the murderer has killed.  And so he traipses through previous unsolved crimes, looking for a developing pattern or any possible connections.

Outside of his work, his infatuation with his co-worker Natasha Wilkie has led Newson to join the online site ‘Friends Reunited’.  On there he locates his old school class of 1984 and to his surprise, sees that the vast majority of his old school mates are already on there.  Wistfully looking back on his past, he looks for his two former girlfriends, Helen Smart and the delectable Christine Copperfield.  And that’s when he gets the invite from Christine.  She’s organising a class reunion…and it’s soon.

Meanwhile, more murders have taken place and Newson is now utterly convinced that they have a serial killer at large.  There is a pattern connecting all the victims.  Each and every one of them had themselves been bullies at one time or another.  They had brought utter misery to their victims’ lives.  But now they were the ones at the other end of the sword.  However, it quickly emerges that none of those that were bullied by the now dead bullies could have been responsible for the murders.  

But when his ex-girlfriend, Helen Smart, posts up a long and heart-felt message on the Friends Reunited website about how Christine Copperfield had bullied her when they were at school, forcing a tampon down her throat, Newson makes the connection.  The killer is using the site to find his victims.  Locating the bullies from online confessions.  And now Helen Smart has posted up a message about Christine Copperfield’s bullying.  Newson’s suddenly no longer just the investigating officer...his life’s suddenly become entangled in the murders.  The sins of the past are catching up with the bullies...

DLS Review:
The novel reads like a black comedy version of a Shaun Hutson thriller, with its bold, colourful and easy-to-read writing style, along with its bite-sized chapters always ending on a thrilling cliff-hanger.  Coupled with a healthy wedge of humour, the tale is instantly refreshing and refreshingly easy to get along with.

The character of Ed Newson is incredibly likeable from the outset.  Obviously based on the Elton himself, his comical exterior hides the more personal elements of the character.  It’s easy to connect with Newton, to see parts of him in yourself, which helps to create simple but strong bonds between the reader and the protagonist.

The secondary storyline surrounding Newson’s love-life (or severe lack of) and the resulting infatuation with his good friend and co-worker Natasha Wilkie helps bring out much more from the character.  With the repeated flashbacks to Newson’s younger years, when he managed to date Helen Smart and then unbelievably the girl everyone wanted to be with - Christine Copperfield, the tale plays around with a colourful coming-of-age / guy-finally-gets-the-girl kind of storyline.  This is somewhat short lived, and far from overdone, keeping the ‘murder mystery’ plot chugging along at a fair old pace.

Elton throws a few reasonably explicit sex scenes into the storyline, seemingly from out of the blue, with the pulse-racing romp suddenly making the tale seem even more like something Shaun Hutson would dream up.  Along with the sex, are some quite graphic depictions of the tortures that our serial killer visits upon the victims.  These two stronger (more adult) elements push the novel into a slightly more pulpy territory than you would have expected from Ben Elton.  And what’s perhaps even more surprising, is how suited to this more sledgehammer-in-your-face style of approach Elton is.  He doesn’t take the scenes too far, go too overboard with the explicit nature of the raunchy or sadistic scenes, or throw in too much of it to dilute down the impact.  The levels are just right for this type of semi-light-hearted back comedy.

Undeniably the biggest disappointment of the book is how utterly predictable the supposed ‘twist ending’ is.  It takes very little effort or imagination to be able to see who the real serial killer is from particularly early on in the tale.  And with so much riding on the mystery element, Elton’s pretty much shot himself in the foot here.  It’s a shame, and does make the final revelation a bit of a damp squib.

However, shockingly-predictable endings aside, the tale remains a thoroughly enjoyable read, with plenty of wit and charm thrown in to keep the atmosphere reasonably light and utterly entertaining.  A damn good read.

The novel runs for a total of 359 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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