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Book: “Always the First to Die” by R.J. Jacobs
Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Landmark, September 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: For fans of Riley Sager with a classic slasher twist, Always the First to Die follows a former horror movie actress as she returns to the set of her most iconic film, only to find that the strange circumstances begin to resemble the plot of her most famous film.
After her husband’s death, Lexi has refused to return to the Pinecrest Estate on the Florida Keys, too many hard memories on that strip of land. Memories of meeting her husband on the set of an iconic horror movie. Of being cast as an extra, of watching herself get killed on screen. And of scoffing at the rumors of the Pinecrest Estate “curse,” until she witnessed a cast member die that very summer. But when her daughter sneaks away to visit her grandfather, legendary horror movie director Rick Plummer, Lexi is forced to face her past. That’s when a Category Four hurricane changes course, and hits the southern coast.
Unable to get through to her daughter, Lexi drives to the Keys in the wake of the storm. What she finds is an island without cell service, without power, and with limited police presence. A desolate bit of land, with only a few remaining behind: the horror director, the starlet once cast as the final girl, the young teenager searching for clues of her father, the mother determined to get off the island, and…the person picking them off one-by-one.
Soon enough Lexi’s life begins to resemble Rick’s most famous horror film, and she must risk her life to save her daughter before someone, or something, destroys them all.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
Well even though Horrorpalooza is over for this year, you know that I like to extend the spooky season well beyond the end of October. So it just made sense to pick a thriller that has some quality horror love and reference points to ease out of an all horror line up. So that brings us to “Always the First to Die” by R.J. Jacobs, a thriller novel with a slasher movie twist. As a slasher movie geek with a love for fourth wall breaking nonsense, the description of this really spoke to me, and while I’ve saved it for a later review date (this has been out since September after all), make no mistake, I throughly enjoyed this book.
Since it is a mystery thriller at heart, let’s start there. The set up is pretty well done. We have Lexi, a current librarian who once had a serendipitous acting turn in “Breathless”, one of the most lauded (and most notorious) horror films of the 1990s. The director, Rick Plummer, has a reputation for being hardcore and visionary, and the death of one of the actors on the set solidified the film in Hollywood horror lore. Now Lexi is his daugher in law, his writer son/her husband Cam disappeared, and Rick lives on the Pinecrest Estate in the Keys where they filmed the movie and is estranged from Lexi. Lexi’s daughter lies to her and goes to visit grandad, and then a Hurricane hits. So Lexi goes to find her kid, but they all find themselves trapped on the island with a potential killer who may have a vendetta against Plummer. Solid stuff, and while it sounds fairly run of the mill, Jacobs does a good job of building the suspense while also giving back story so we can understand Lexi, Rick, and what is motivating both of them. We have two timelines, the first being the present day, and the second being the filming of “Breathless” where Lexi first meets Rick and things start going sideways, and both narratives take their time to build up the mystery and to leave clues that intersect with each other. I liked having a couple mysteries to solve, and while I kind of guessed some aspects of one, others were vague enough that I was left mostly in the dark. I also liked how Jacobs took a ‘locked room’ theme and applied it to an island in the wake of a hurricane. It cuts our characters off in a realistic but unique way, and makes them have to reckon not just with a killer on the loose, but also their pasts and their secrets.
But the horror movie easter eggs are such a fun bonus and what made this read stand out for me. Jacobs definitely has a working knowledge and affection for horror movies and the horror genre, and I loved seeing reference after reference sprinkled throughout the narrative in a meta sort of way. It’s already fun to have the setting and plot revolve around a horror movie cast and crew that had a tragedy on the set, which leads to rumors of a curse on the production (in similar ways things are said about the “Poltergeist” franchise or “Twilight Zone: The Movie”). To add in a nudge nudge wink wink of a ‘how to survive a horror movie’ mentality that Lexi has, in part due to being in one in her youth and in part due to her late husband’s book on the subject, just makes it all the more fun. It’s like having Randy and/or Mindy Meeks from the “Scream” Franchise yelling in our protagonist’s ear, and it absolutely worked for me as someone who is assuredly a Randy or Mindy Meeks kind of horror fan.
I thought that “Always the First to Die” was an entertaining thriller that will have some appeal for fans of slasher and horror movies. But you honestly don’t have to love the horror genre to find this book fun; if you are a lover of locked room mystery thrillers it will be a good addition to your to-read pile!
Rating 8: Addictive and compelling with a lot or horror movie reference icing, “Always the First to Die” is a fast paced thriller that will entertain slasher movie fans.
“Always the First to Die” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Slasher Fiction (No Novelizations)”.