Dead Famous (2001) by Ben Elton
reviewed by Barry Ergang
One of the first and most popular of the so-called "reality TV" shows, "Big Brother" should begin its latest season shortly. Whether you've seen it or only read about it, you probably know the premise: a group of people are confined to a house for several months, isolated from the outside world, their every activity and interaction monitored by cameras and microphones twenty-four hours a day. One by one the housemates are evicted by their fellows until only two remain. The evicted housemates vote to determine the winner, who receives half a million dollars. The runner-up comes away with fifty thousand.
Apart from the prospect of emerging with a lot of money, why do the contestants put themselves through this? They may offer a variety of reasons, but the reality is they crave the instant, if dubious, fame being seen on a nationally or internationally broadcast program brings.
Why would a network (CBS, in "Big Brother's" case) broadcast this kind of program? Because there's an audience for it to whom they can transmit advertisements which in turn pay the network's revenues. The programs that make it to the air are of course carefully edited for their "dramatic" value. Fanatical viewers can pay their subscription money to watch everything, including the mundane moments, via Internet feeds.
This is the basis for Ben Elton's clever satirical whodunit Dead Famous. The program is "House Arrest," brought to an English audience by Peeping Tom Productions, the company owned by the calculating Geraldine Hennessey, also known as "Geraldine the Gaoler."
A diverse group of ten men and women, all relatively young and, with one notable exception, fairly attractive, are confined to the "House Arrest" house under the constant surveillance of Peeping Tom. Friendships and enmities quickly develop as the housemates are assigned tasks by Peeping Tom to earn their weekly share of food and drink. Having no television to watch or books to read, the rest of their time is spent in group and individual interaction. Geraldine, ever alert for "good telly," hopes sexual liasons will ensue, and has done her best to provide for them.
Twenty-seven days later, after the first eviction and the arrest—which stands in lieu of an eviction—of another housemate for a past crime, someone (the reader doesn't learn who until two-thirds of the way through the book) is brutally murdered by person unknown. Given all of the cameras and microphones covering every inch of the house, it can't have happened—but it has.
Thus, an "impossible" murder in a "locked house."
Old-school, often splenetic Chief Inspector Stanley Spencer Coleridge and his team are compelled to wade through unedited, unaired videotapes, hoping to find a motive or a clue. The reader is a party to their investigations as well as to what goes on in the house, the editing suite, and in the minds of the book's characters.
Eventually Coleridge discovers the solution to the fairly-clued puzzle and reveals it in grand fashion.
Ben Elton's crisp prose moves the reader swiftly through the story, which includes some good comic moments as well as suspenseful ones. Dead Famous works very well as a detective story and as a satirical take on our modern culture's inexplicable taste for fabricated fame. I recommend the book with the warning that readers who find raw, rampant profanity and graphic sexual depictions offensive will want to avoid it.
Barry Ergang (c) 2007
Currently the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2007Derringer Award in the Flash Fiction category, Barry Ergang’s written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. For links to material available online, see Barry’s webpages.