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Less Than Dead
by Tim Downs

Reviewed by C.J. Darlington

"Since Shoofly Pie the Bugman novels have progressively developed to become some of the best suspense reading on the market. Less Than Dead is the best of the bunch."

She’s an outcast. The townsfolk of backwoods Endor, Virginia call her a witch. Rumor has it she spends her nights roaming the woods with a three-legged dog searching for the remains of her missing father. Her name is Alena, and the children of Endor say she visits the local animal shelter looking for plump puppies to take home so she can drink their blood. Not exactly a gal you’d want to make friends with, right? She is if you’re Nick Polchak, aka “The Bugman”. He needs a cadaver search dog yesterday, and if Alena’s hound is as good as Nick thinks, he’ll do anything to get on Alena’s good side. Even if it means risking life and limb.

Nick’s been hired by FBI Special Agent Nick Donovan (from Downs’ novel Plague Maker) to help solve the mystery of an ancient graveyard a back hoe accidentally uncovered on Senator John Henry Braden’s property. This isn’t just any cemetary. There are two bodies in each grave. One in a casket, the other buried on top. The workings of a serial killer? The FBI doesn’t know for sure, and neither does Nick. All he knows is that he can’t start his work until all possible graves in the area are identified by a cadaver dog, and the one the FBI hired is running in circles.

Nick Polchak isn’t your typical fictional hero. He isn’t strong, handsome or social. More like Monk than Jack Bauer. But there’s something endearing about this crazy, insect loving man with the enormous coke bottle glasses, wickedly dry sense of humor, and disdain for authority. He says the things we wish we could say, and we never know what hornet’s nest he’ll step on. We don’t delve much into Nick’s personal life this time (read Chop Shop if you want to know more about his past). He’s basically dropped into this story fully developed, but he’s such a quirky character that you get to know him quickly.

Nick is originally called on the graveyard case for his entomology expertise, but it’s the cadaver dog aspect which gives us the signature gross out moments, as well as our education. Typical of a Downs novel, we come away armed with some cool facts. Like how a dog can have two hundred million olfactory cells in its nose compared to about five million in humans. Says Alena to Nick at one point, “You walk into a kitchen and smell beef stew; a dog walks into a kitchen and smells beef, carrots, peas, potatoes—it’s called ‘odor layering’. He can even smell the salt—even in a dilution of one in ten million.”

Maybe it’s because Tim Downs has grown in his three prior Bugman novels (Shoofly Pie, Chop Shop & First The Dead), but the dead-pan humor in Less Than Dead is what sets it above the others. Nick’s response to the above stew? “Question,” Nick said. “If a dog’s sense of smell is so much more sensitive than a man’s, how come a dog will stick its nose in your crotch?”

During an interview I did with Tim awhile back I asked him what he’d love to write someday but hadn’t yet. He answered: “A pure comedy—and I hope to get to do one fairly soon. I suppose it’s a leftover from my comic strip days [he wrote and illustrated the now defunct strip Downstown]: I just love humor, and I’d love to write a book where the humor is more up front.”

Mixing humor and suspense can be risky and hard to pull off. If you come off too zany it’s hard to take the plot seriously. Jokes in the wrong character’s mouths or at the wrong time can end up sounding forced, like the author knew things were getting too intense and tried to lighten things up. But with a character like Nick it all works. The straight-faced banter is usually at its finest between Nick and his female supporting characters (think Dr. Beth Woodbridge from First the Dead), and that’s certainly true here with Nick and Alena.

There’s a lot going on in Less Than Dead, and the subplot involving the Senator and his wife might seem tedious at first. But everything makes sense as you keep reading. The plot is intricate and comes together without any of the rushed-ending-feel of some thrillers. (You know the type—it’s obvious the author was on deadline and had to wrap things up in a hurry.) We get to relish in the conclusion, and it’s a satisfying one. A few scenes might be difficult reading for sensitive animal lovers, but this dogphile was able to get through.

Since Shoofly Pie the Bugman novels have progressively developed to become some of the best suspense reading on the market. Less than Dead is the best of the bunch.

C.J. DarlingtonC.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.