Friday, June 27, 2008

First the Dead – Tim Downs

© 2007, Thomas Nelson, Nashville

The third outing for Nick Polchak, aka The Bug Man, is hardcover. This means that Tim Downs is moving up in the world. As I have mentioned before, Downs got early recognition for his comic strip “Downs Town.” In recent years he’s turned his hand at writing books and doing marriage enrichment with his wife. Some of his more memorable moments in print include Head Game and the Christy award-winning PlagueMaker.

The first two Bug Man novels Shoo Fly Pie and Chop Shop were released in trade paperback to relative success. This time out Polchak is part of the Disaster Mortuary Operation Response Team (DMORT) that is deployed to help with the relief effort in the face of Hurricane Katrina. Nick’s team is to help recover the dead victims of a disaster and aid in identifying them so that families will know the truth about their loved ones.

In the course of the story we learn that Nick has been active with DMORT on a number of occasions. It is where he met his DMORT supervisor Denny—who although he likes Nick well enough wishes that the Bug Man would listen and follow directives, his partner Jerry—a lifelong bachelor and mortician who takes us back to the roots of how and why DMORT was formed, and Beth—the psychiatrist whose job it is to care not only for the trauma of the victims, but also to help the DMORT personnel deal with the stress of an already stressful job. Interestingly enough, during several mutual deployments Nick and Beth have seen the rocky road of infatuation turned to deep like, plummeting to disastrous relationship. Nick would just as soon not even look at Beth, but it has nothing to do with her looks.

One of the biggest difficulties with Nick Polchak is that when he sees a wrong he takes it upon himself to right it. When DMORT is directed by FEMA to help with the Search and Rescue before dealing with bodies, Polchak takes offence. One hearty worker meets Polchak’s objections by yelling “First the Living!” and Nick responds by naming the book.

Nick’s point, perhaps some of the bodies that turn up may not be produced by the storm, but a result of foul play. If you leave the bodies in the water long enough any physical evidence of a crime would be destroyed by the toxic gumbo that has become the streets of New Orleans.

As with all the Bug Man novels, there are passages where the techno babble about entomology and detail about geek-type equipment can force the reader to fight sleep, but the story is good, the plot intriguing, and the story includes life and death action. You will find corrupt cops, drug culture and see the Bug Man become almost human—but don’t tell Nick, it might offend him.

First the Dead is a worthwhile read and rates 4 reading glasses.

Benjamin Potter, June 25, 2008

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