Saturday, 24 August 2013

Book review: Past Mortem, Ben Elton

Ben Elton is definitely one of my favourite authors of all time. My fascination with his books started when I read Dead Famous a few years ago after picking it up in a charity shop, and I've read another seven of his books since then. I love the way he chooses timely and controversial topics and bases his books around them in a satirical and usually humorous manner. For example, Dead Famous takes a satirical look at the UK's obsession with reality TV; Meltdown explores the life-changing issues posed by the credit crunch, bankers' greed and MPs' fraudulent expense claims; and High Society discusses the legalisation of drugs. However, Past Mortem is probably my favourite book yet by Ben Elton which is why I've decided to review it!

No spoilers :)

Past Mortem begins with a brutal murder, which introduces the reader to Detective Inspector Newson. Due to the unusual and methodical method of Bishop's murder, Newson is convinced that he has a serial killer on his hands. After further investigation, Newson finds three unsolved murders in various parts of the country which have similar characteristics such as the unusual killing method and the fact that the killer was welcomed into the victims' homes without any sign of struggle. Convinced that these murders must be connected in some way, Newson starts investigating the lives of all the victims. He encounters a similar attitude from all who knew the victims: 'I'm glad they're dead'. There seems to be a strong general consensus that the victims deserved everything that happened to them, however brutal and horrific.

In the meantime, the murderer is still on the loose and kills another five people before Newson figures out his/her identity. Newson establishes a link between the murders long before this, but still cannot fathom why the victims let the murderer in to their homes without question or suspicion. Newson has found out through his investigations that all the victims were bullies who made other people's lives a misery when they were in school and in later life. The murderer appears to be on a mission to punish bullies by killing them and using their own bullying methods against them. Newson is constantly wondering which bully will be targeted next.

The book has a few sub plots which link well with the 'victim' and 'bully' theme running throughout the book. DI Newson is in love with his subordinate, Sergeant Natasha Wilkie. Natasha herself is a victim of bullying in the form of domestic abuse, but she is in denial like so many other victims. Newson often sees the parallels between Natasha's situation and the victims of the bullies who are being murdered, but Natasha herself is either blind to this reality or chooses to ignore it. Newson gets involved with two other women during the course of the book who coincidentally become involved in the murders for very different reasons. This corroboration between the plot and numerous sub plots is very clever and makes the book even more gripping. The reader is constantly assessing whether the main characters are 'victims' or 'bullies'. Or both!

Did the bullies deserve their fate due to their past behaviour? Is murder really the only way to teach bullies a lesson and to silence them for ever? Are the people who stood by and watched the bullying just as bad as the perpetrators themselves? These are just a few of the questions posed throughout the book and they really make the reader think. I was bullied myself in school and could empathise with the bullied victims in the book on so many levels. Bullies erode your self confidence, make you dread going to school (or to wherever the bullies are) and generally make you feel worthless and helpless. They also make you feel very bitter towards the people who just stand by and watch without stepping in to help or, even worse, laugh at your treatment. However, if I was on the sidelines watching someone else being bullied, would I have stepped in? I wouldn't have dreamed of interfering when I was in school, and I'm not sure if I'd even be brave enough now. Why make yourself known to the bully and make yourself a target if they're picking on someone else? A very selfish attitude, but one which is massively prevailing and probably always will be. Does this attitude make the bystanders just as bad as the bully themselves? Past Mortem deconstructs this attitude and others in the most gruesome way and makes the reader question the reasons behind specific behaviours.

So, to sum up, Past Mortem is a fantastic book and you should definitely read it. I did guess who the murderer was halfway through the book (probably because I read so many crime books), but I still couldn't put the book down and was totally gripped from beginning to end. The book really made me think about some complex issues, including my own experiences of being a victim of bullying, and made me question a lot of accepted and prevalent attitudes which I quite often display myself. If you do read the book, let me know what you thought!

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