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Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Past Mortem by Ben Elton

Past Mortem was one of those books that I picked up on a whim, purely because I fancied a bit more crime fiction on my shelf. I guess the main draw for this in particular was the focus on Friends Reunited, a site that will soon be relegated to the dustiest corners of internet history. Having only just gotten to this three months after the site was shut down, I feel that this book may go down the same route in my memory.

Past Mortem follows Detective Inspector Edward Newson, a mild-mannered policeman whose life, both personal and professional, could do with a bit of a pick-me-up. In his personal life, he finds himself signing up to Friends Reunited and trying to track down the objects of desire from his teenage years in an attempt to smother his current infatuation with his very much spoken for coworker, Natasha. At work, he is presented with a series of strange and gruesome murders, each incredibly distinct in method of execution but all sharing the same acute attention to detail and an odd series of music choices used to cover the screams. As he gets roped into a school reunion, he finds his personal and professional lives clashing in spectacular fashion.
I find myself less than impressed with Past Mortem as a novel. While the mystery itself, which (as you've probably guessed) is linked with people on the Friends Reunited website, did have an interesting premise and a few good twists and turns, it was let down by some characters that were at best lacklustre and at worst either totally unsympathetic or so poorly written that they ceased to make sense, as well as an ending that flailed because of an obviously flagged murderer and poor pacing.
So, to the characters first. When it comes to a crime novel's main detectives, I think it is reasonable for them to be sympathetic to the audience, otherwise you get the readers rooting for the murderer, a situation that I think most of us are okay avoiding. In the case of Past Mortem, you have Ed Newson and his coworker/object of affection Natasha Wilkie. Or rather an annoying Nice Guy with an obsessive crush on Blandy McNiceLegs. Honestly, I got to the end of the book and still have very little idea what kind of personality Natasha is supposed to have, but gosh the text wants everything to come across as cheery and perky. But at least with Natasha she's just boring. With Newson, there seems to be an assumption that because he isn't a blokey-bloke like most police officers apparently are, and is instead mild-mannered and self-deprecating, that the audience should automatically like him. While I can see the overall concept working, it tends to be more successful when the tone is less whining along the lines of "Why does my coworker like her boyfriend more than me?! I mean, look at me, I'm treating her with a modicum of respect, doesn't that count for something?" or "Oh no, I stuck my dick in crazy, and now she's stabbing herself in my bathroom, however will I cope?" He comes across like a petulant child, and it is really not a flattering quality to have. Additionally, his behaviour towards one of the women he sleeps with in the book is really quite callous, and the author doesn't seem to understand that fact. The first woman he sleeps with reveals how severely she was bullied while they were in secondary school, as an explanation for some of her wilder, more self-destructive behaviour. Reading it as a woman, it is a recollection that comes across as very real and definitely humiliating enough that I can understand it really leaving a mark. His reaction is essentially "Well, your bully was never mean to me, so you must be exaggerating." It's just so telling that he doesn't care about her in the slightest, though I'm sure that Elton would try and argue otherwise. As for the bad guys of the piece, their characterisation is messed up through a complete lack of balance. The red herring has a weird about-face, going from someone genuinely looking to repent for being a little shit when he was a teenager, to someone actively taunting the police and acting so smug that I almost thought the genre had shifted to that of children's action-adventure cartoon, something in the vein of Inspector Gadget in terms of subtlety. It's made all the more irritating by the fact that it's obvious that he's a red herring and stealing time away from the actual murderer. The real culprit goes through the novel with so few scenes that I could probably count them all on one hand. By the end, it means that he's caught, but there's no satisfaction from it because you don't really know anything about him apart from the basics. The motive is gestured at broadly, but not in any real depth because the book just isn't interested in it, which is a shame.
As for the ending, it just falls flat entirely. I mentioned above that the red herring was annoying because it's so obvious that he's a red herring. Well, that could be said for most of the last quarter of the book, where (at least for me) it became obvious who the murderer was, only for the plot itself to focus on everyone but the murderer. Then after whole chapters of flailing around pretending to be busy, they catch the killer in the act and there are 4 and a half pages wrapping things up. I can't help but wonder whether Elton just lost interest after the killer was caught and twatted round the head with a truncheon. Murderer's caught, everybody go home, but not until after you've caught the end of the romantic subplot tumour that was the real reason you stayed to the end. That's not a resolution, that's the evidence of a man with a rapidly approaching deadline or rapidly diminishing levels of interest.

What could have been at least an average crime novel manages to fail on almost every level. The characterisation is poor at best and the pacing is almost criminally awful in the last quarter or so of the book. The crimes themselves are interesting and satisfyingly gruesome, but they're not enough to save Past Mortem from its own huge failings. 2/5

Next review: Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

Signing off,

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