Friday, August 26, 2011

FFB Review: "Dead Famous" by Ben Elton --Reviewed by Barry Ergang

DEAD FAMOUS (2001) by Ben Elton

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

Whether you've seen the so-called "reality TV" show "Big Brother" 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 liaisons 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) 2011


Formerly the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2007 Derringer 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. Remember, too, that he has books from his personal collection for sale at He'll contribute 20% of the purchase price of the books to our fund, so please have a look at his lists.


carl brookins said...

Another reason for the proliferation of these kinds of fake reality programs is their cost, relative to dramatic or scripted programs. They cost megabucks less to get on the air. Because they are so popular--something which mystifies me--they are enormously profitable.

Dan_Luft said...

Ben Elton also wrote most of the episodes for Black Adder and so may just be considered brilliant.

Barry Ergang said...

Agreed, Carl, though I don't remember Elton making that point in the book. Then again, it's been several years since I read it.

And yes, Dan, "Blackadder" was a terrific program. I managed to tape all but a couple of the earliest episodes--and for my money, the first season was the weakest. It's hard to say which of the subsequent seasons was the funniest. Miranda Richardson as a ditzy Queen Elizabeth was hilarious. Hugh Laurie was very funny, and Tony Robinson as Baldrick was brilliant.

"My lord, I have a cunning plan...."

Kevin R. Tipple said...

I never could get into Blackadder.