FIRST THE DEAD: A Bug Man Novel
Quirky novelist Tim Downs pens a compelling work of fiction in his third Bug Man novel, FIRST THE DEAD, featuring the unconventional protagonist Nick Polchack.
Downs uses the looming specter of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as the time and setting for his novel. Anticipating bedlam in Louisiana, the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (a real-life organization) has been activated, and Nick, a forensic entomologist and professor, is ready to go and volunteer his assistance. His task, however, turns out to be rescuing the living rather than autopsying the dead.
In true Polchak fashion, Nick rebels and insists on recovering a few dead bodies that appear to be the victims of foul play rather than storm casualties. Immediately he is at odds with his supervisor and, especially, law enforcement officers who seemingly have their own reasons for wanting the bodies to be attributed to drowning rather than to murder. An edgy loner and local police officer out rescuing hurricane victims, shootings and nefarious doings deep in the bayou --- complete with thrashing, hungry alligators --- keep the tension simmering throughout.
The pace is quick and the storyline intriguing. Besides these two important ingredients, Downs does some more intensive character development with Nick in this novel, letting us see deeper into his psyche. One of the strongest interactions is between Nick and a young African-American adolescent refugee, J.T., who cracks Nick’s tough exterior and invites him to care in a way he hasn’t allowed himself to do in the past. Throughout the book, the author touches on love (and things that keep us from loving fully), racial prejudice, addiction and the single-minded passions that drive some individuals.
Downs carefully parcels out his suspense in the right amounts, offering just enough facts to hold readers’ interest but saving some surprises for the very last pages. The romantic tension with his arch-nemesis (and sometime-flame) Elizabeth “Beth” Woodbridge offers lighter notes throughout, as well as additional insights into Nick’s character. Those readers looking for strong faith themes won’t find them here, although there is a compelling good versus evil theme and redemption in the closing pages.
If you’re not familiar with the Bug Man novels, I have one piece of advice: Don’t read them while eating. Downs’s graphic description of corpses, bloated and maggot-ridden, tends to be forensically interesting but appetite depressing. I found myself skimming a few of the most graphic paragraphs and, at one point, putting away my cheese and crackers.
If you haven’t read Downs’s earlier novels featuring the intrepid bug man (SHOEFLY PIE and CHOP SHOP), I would recommend doing so before tackling this one. FIRST THE DEAD can be read as a stand-alone, but you’ll find it a richer story having familiarized yourself with books one and two.
Downs’s novel places readers squarely in the center of a natural disaster while offering ideas about love, ethics and vocation. The interesting forensic information gives this story an edge over other books in the genre, and his plot twists will keep readers engrossed until the last paragraph. Hopefully we’ll see another Bug Man novel soon.
--- Reviewed by Cindy Crosby. Contact Cindy at firstname.lastname@example.org
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