Reviewed by C.J. Darlington
First the Dead by Tim Downs
"...could be Tim Downs' strongest book yet. With a setting that hits close to home and lovable characters to root for, it'll keep you rapt. "
Where were you on August 29th, 2005? If you’re anything like the average American, you probably don’t remember. We can barely recite what we ate for breakfast this morning, let alone what happened to us on a specific day years ago. But if you’re a Gulf state resident, August 29th is a day you probably never will forget.
That late summer Monday was the day Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history ($81.2 billion) and the sixth strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, made landfall. Almost two thousand people lost their lives from its effects. But did they all die of natural causes? What if someone took advantage of a storm they knew would wreak havoc to dispose of their murdered victims? First The Dead proposes someone did just that—someone who didn’t expect forensic entomologist Nick Polchak to volunteer with the DMORT response team.
Dubbed the “Bugman”, Nick made his debut in Tim Downs’ first novel Shoofly Pie. Readers grew to love the eccentric character with thick glasses who thought of himself more as an insect than a human, and Downs followed up with Chop Shop, the unofficial Book #2 in the series. He even gave Nick a cameo in his non-Bugman book Plague Maker. In First the Dead the Bugman is back in all his quirky glory. Downs has us immediately loving the guy all over again.
As Nick lends his hand in the rescue efforts it isn’t long before he starts recovering dead bodies, much to his superiors’ dismay. Their motto is “first the living”, and it’s very much against orders for Nick to bring the bodies in before the rescues are completed. Surprise, surprise—he does it anyway. After all, as a forensic entomologist it’s his job to examine bugs, namely the maggots infesting human remains. Through the larvae of ordinary (and sometimes not so ordinary) flies he can accurately pinpoint a time of death, and often the location of the death. Some of the bodies he finds in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath obviously met their demise from the hurricane. Others cause Nick to speculate foul play. It’s something else his superiors’ don’t want to hear.
The buggish details in this novel are not for the squeamish. Nick is fond of sharing the often grotesque particulars of his profession with his uninitiated acquaintances, and the descriptions could turn the stomachs of some readers. Others (myself included) will find the facts delightfully intriguing because they’re disgusting. Who knew a body in water decomposes in six stages and doesn’t float until it bloats in the second stage?
The banter between Nick and supporting character Dr. Beth Woodbridge, a psychiatrist who may or may not be attracted to Nick, is the highlight of the First the Dead reading experience. Some of the dead-pan one liners Nick delivers are hilarious. These lighter moments give us a reprieve between the darker scenes featuring the villain. More a suspense than a mystery, you might be able to guess the bad guy early on. But that could’ve been the way Downs planned it. By knowing, or at least suspecting, you’re constantly worried for Nick and his companions.
As in his previous works, Downs has done his homework, and we experience his research on every page. Except for Chapter 4's somewhat dull DMORT briefing (even Nick was bored during the meeting), Downs weaves his facts and figures seamlessly into the narrative. Even that scene was probably intended to give us a glimpse into exactly what goes on during one of these gatherings.
In some ways First the Dead presents a softer and gentler Nick Polchak. Early on he becomes the impromptu guardian of a young boy searching for his missing father, and it’s in these exchanges we realize perhaps, just maybe, Nick has a heart after all. The spiritual take-away is limited to Nick’s sense of honor and duty (as in the previous Bugman novels), but there’s nothing a Christian would find offensive. Violence is kept mostly off-stage, or at least not described for shock value. The goriest moments come from the bugs and clinical examination of bodies, not the murders.
For anyone who didn’t realize the utter devastation Hurricane Katrina caused to not only New Orleans but also the surrounding area, First the Dead will be an eye-opener. It could be Tim Downs’ strongest book yet. With a setting that hits close to home and loveable characters to root for, it’ll keep you rapt.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.