SHOOFLY PIE: A Bug Man Novel
Imagine Jeff Goldblum speaking lines worthy of Indiana Jones. That's the picture I had in my head the whole time I was reading SHOOFLY PIE, a delightful novel that helped launch Howard Publishing's fiction line earlier this year. This intelligent and refreshingly believable murder mystery offers a sometimes yucky look into the work of a forensic entomologist --- in this case, Dr. Nick Polchak, also known as the Bug Man. Polchak is an academic who studies bugs for a living and tends to get into hot water for overstepping his bounds by involving himself in pesky little extracurricular activities like murder investigations.
Shipped off to the backwater of North Carolina, where his superiors figure he'll stay out of trouble for the summer, Polchak is drawn into another sticky situation by a woman whose good friend's death has been ruled a suicide. She doesn't believe that, of course, and turns to Polchak for help, which makes more sense than it sounds. What ensues is a story of intrigue and misunderstandings, and all manner of entomological mayhem. And thankfully, only the merest hint of romantic attraction. Anything more would have been way too predictable, and one of Downs's many strengths as a writer is his unpredictability.
From the opening scene you have this suspicion that SHOOFLY PIE is not going to be your typical Christian novel, although things have improved so dramatically in so short a time on the CBA fiction front that I'm not sure how much longer I can keep comparing new releases to what used to be typical. Downs's opener is as memorable a scene as you'll find anywhere in contemporary fiction, and what's even better, the rest of the book is worthy of his captivating prologue. It's funny, smart, suspenseful, and blessedly free of heavy-handed reminders that this is a "Christian" novel.
And it has characters, starting with Polchak. How Downs managed to create such a distinctive, provocative and believably eccentric character in his first novel is the kind of thing that should be required instruction at writers' conferences. Downs should also teach a course or ten on writing dialogue --- he has that pretty much perfected.
The guy --- Polchak, that is --- just won't let go once he settles into your imagination. He's self-absorbed and irritating and likeable in that exasperating way that annoying but charming people seem to somehow master. His thinking is so intertwined with his work that he describes people and their habits in entomological terms, and he does it so unselfconsciously that it's simply hilarious.
Which brings up another point: Never does Downs's writing seem forced. All the elements that make for good fiction --- among them, memorable characters, a colorful setting, a riveting plot and believable dialogue --- come together seamlessly in this book. There's a flow to the story that makes for a genuinely enjoyable reading experience.
About the Jeff Goldblum/Indiana Jones connection: Polchak's wisecracks, comebacks and observations about the human condition could have come straight from the mouth of Jones, which is not so surprising considering that, like Jones, he's an academic who gets caught up in an adventure of sorts. Physically, he's Jeff Goldblum. And if that leaves you with the impression that reading SHOOFLY PIE tends to conjure up cinematic images, well, you'd be right. And that's because this is one book that would make a terrific movie.
And yes, this is the first novel in the Bug Man series. There's more to come, and that is very, very good news.
--- Reviewed by Marcia Ford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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