Thursday, 10 May 2012

Shoofly Pie by Tim Downs

Back Cover: The flies on the wall can talk... and forensic entomologist Nick Polchak is listening.

Within minutes of a murder, the first fly arrives at the scene. Soon there are hundreds, then thousands, and each one knows the victim's story. Each one can tell a tale of hatred and vengeance and intrigue.

In a remote county of North Carolina, a thirty-year-old Kathryn Guilford receives the news that her long-time friend and one-time suitor is dead. The authorities declare the death a suicide, but Kathryn is not convinced. In desperation she turns to Dr. Nick Polchak, the Bug Man, to help her learn the truth - and she is introduced to a mysterious world of blood-seeking flies and flesh-eating beetles.

But there's a problem... Kathryn Guilford has a pathological fear of insects. Now she must confront her darkest fears to unearth a decade-long conspiracy that threatens to turn her entire world upside down.

Review: This is one of those books that you read while you should be sleeping, that stays glued in front of your nose as you make a mess of doing your chores (and almost run into that open door…oops!), making dinner (or burning it…), and when you are talking to your mom on the phone (and your responses are limited to “uh huh….uh huh…”). I have not declared a favourite author since the days when I was obsessed with Brian Jacque’s “Redwall” series back in middle school.

Let me pause for a moment.

Alright, here it comes:

Tim Downs is my new favourite author.

I could pretty much end the review right there, but I never can keep anything short and succinct.

Dr. Nick Polchuk is one funky Bug Man. He’s crazy, quirky, ridiculous, split-your-gut-laughing hilarious, blunt in a way that makes you cringe and laugh at the same time, scientifically brilliant, dangerously curious, a hopeless failure in all matters regarding women, and contemptuous viewer of that strange race called ‘humans’. Nick is the most entertaining, multifaceted, and unique lead characters I have read in a very long time… maybe ever.

Nick is not just an entomologist. He is THE entomologist. Coined the “Bug Man” by his students and the law men he frequently “helps”, Nick’s interest in insects is a complete obsession. There is a lot of scientific descriptions and information regarding forensic entomology in this book – but somehow Tim Downs makes it fascinating. I am not 100% certain on the accuracy of the information as this is not my specialty, but it sounds very feasible.

The crime scene descriptions in this novel can be a bit intense if you are queasy about maggots and larvae crawling in and out of people’s orifices or bloated bodies – but what good is a crime novel without a little guts and gore? Plus, Nick dangling maggots in front of Katherine’s nose makes it all worth while. Bug-a-phobes beware!

The crime aspect of this novel was great. Tim Down’s doesn’t just give you the criminal, he makes you work for it right alongside Nick and there are always unexpected twists and turns. Basically, if you like CSI or Bones you will loves this book.

And, just for a taste, here is a quote from Nick – as only he can say it:
“As they approached, Nick’s eyes were drawn to Macy Donocan’s bulging midsection. “Wow, you really are pregnant – look at the size of you.’
“Thank-you, Nick. What every woman longs to hear.”
“When are you due?”
“In a couple of months.”
“You’ve still got a couple of months to go?”
“Nick, do you mind? You’re making me feel like a beached whale.””

And an excerpt from Amazon:
Nick Polchak rapped his knuckles on the frame of the open doorway. He glanced back at the Wake County Sheriff’s Department police cruiser blocking the driveway, orange and blue lights silently rotating.
“Yo!” Nick called into the house. “Coming in!”
A fresh-faced sheriff’s deputy in khaki short sleeves poked his head around the corner and beckoned him in. Nick wondered where they got these kids. He looked younger than some of his students.
Nick stepped into the entryway. Dining room on the right, living room on the left. It was a typical suburban Raleigh home, a colonial five-four-and-a-door with white siding and black shutters. A mahogany bureau stood just inside the door. At its base lay three pair of shoes, one a pair of black patent leathers. Nick shook his head.
He knew the layout by heart: stairway on the left, powder room on the right, down a short hallway was the kitchen, and the family room beyond that.
Nick paused in the second doorway and took a moment to study the young officer. He stood nervously, awkwardly, constantly checking his watch. His right hand held a handkerchief cupped over his nose and mouth, and he winced as he sucked in each short gulp of air. Nick followed the officer’s frozen gaze to the right; the decomposing body of a middle-aged woman lay sprawled across the white Formica island in the center of the kitchen.
Nick knocked again.
“Officer… Donnelly, is it? I’m Dr. Nick Polchak. Are you the first one here?”
“I was just a few blocks away, so I took the call.” He glanced again at his watch. “Our homicide people ought to be along within the hour.”
Nick began to stretch on a pair of latex gloves and stepped around to the victim’s head. “The name on the mailbox said ‘Allen.’”
Stephanie Allen. That’s all I’ve been able to get so far.” The deputy nodded silently toward the family room, where a solitary figure sat slumped forward in a red leather chair with his face
buried in his hands. Nick raised his own left hand and wiggled his ring finger. The deputy nodded.
“I didn’t get your name—did you say Kolchek?”
Polchak. Nick Polchak.”
“You don’t sound like you’re from around these parts.”
“I’m from Pittsburgh,” Nick said. “And I’d say you’re not.”
The deputy grinned. “How’d you know?”
“You left your shoes at the door.”
“They don’t do that in Pittsburgh? I guess they don’t have the red clay.”
“The police don’t do that in Pittsburgh. They figure if you’ve got a dead body in the kitchen, you’ve got more to worry about than dirty carpets.”
The body lay faceup, stretched out diagonally across the island under the bright kitchen fluorescents.
“Very handy,” Nick said. “Too bad I don’t find them all like this.”
The head rested in one corner, with medium-length blond hair flowing out evenly on all sides. There were deep abrasions and contusions on the neck and lower jaw. The body was in putrefaction, the second major stage of decomposition. The skin was blistered and tight from expanding gases, and the stench was considerable. There were sizable maggot infestations in both eye sockets and in the gaping mouth cavity. She had been dead for several days—maybe a week or more.
“You got here fast, Doc. I thought the medical examiner’s office was in Chapel Hill.”
Nick shook his head. “I didn’t come from Chapel Hill. I came from NC State. I picked up your call on my police scanner.”
“From the university? What were you doing there?”
“That’s where I work.”
Nick removed a pair of slender forceps and a small magnifier from his coat pocket. He bent close to the victim’s head and began to carefully sort through the wriggling mass of maggots in the left eye socket.
“Wait a minute. You’re not from the medical examiner’s office?”
“Never said I was.”
“Then who in the—”
“I’m a member of the faculty at NC State. I’m a professor in the department of entomology.”
“A professor of what?”
“I’m a forensic entomologist, Deputy. I study the way different necrophilous arthropods inhabit a body during the process of decomposition.”
The deputy stood speechless.
Nick plucked a single plump, white larva from the wiggling mass and held it under the magnifier. “I’m the Bug Man.”
The deputy began to blink rapidly. “Now just hold on… you’re not supposed to…you’re not a part of this…”
“Relax,” Nick held the forceps aloft. “It’s just one bug. There’s plenty more where that came from.”
“You need to leave, Dr. Polchak.”
“Because—you’re not a medical examiner, and you’re not with the department. You shouldn’t be here. It’s not procedure.”
“Not procedure. I have assisted the authorities on seventy-two cases in thirteen different countries. How many homicides did you have in Wake County last year? Five? Ten?”
The deputy shrugged.
“And how many of them did you work?”
“I never heard of any Bug Man,” the deputy muttered. Nick glanced down at the man’s stocking feet. “Now there’s a surprise.”
Now Nick turned to the motionless figure in the red chair. “Mr. Allen,” he called out. “I’m Dr. Nick Polchak. I’d like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind.”
“No,” came a whisper from under the hands. “No questions.”
“Mr. Allen,” the officer broke in. “This man is not a part of the official police investigation. You don’t have to answer his questions.”
“He’s right,” Nick said. “But you can if you want to. And when the homicide people get here, Mr. Allen, they’re going to ask questions—quite a lot of them. First the police will ask you when you first discovered your wife’s body.”
The man looked up for the first time. His face was ashen and drawn, and a deep purple crescent cradled each eye.
“It was less than an hour ago,” the man said. “I called the police immediately.”
“Immediately? Your wife has been dead for quite some time, Mr. Allen.”
“I’ve been out of town. I just got back, just today. And then I found her, like…like this.”
Nick nodded. “Next the police will ask you where you were during that time.”
The man did a double take. “Me? Why me?”
“Because the one who discovers the body is always a suspect.”
“Like I said, I was out of town. I was in Chicago, on business. For a whole week—they can check it out.”
“I’m sure they will,” Nick said, “and I’m sure they’ll find you’re telling the truth. Their next question will be: What day did you leave for Chicago?”
The man thought carefully. “Last Wednesday. The fourteenth.”
“That would be…seven days ago exactly. And prior to that time, Mr. Allen, did you see your wife alive and well?”
“We said good-bye right here, on Wednesday morning. She was perfectly healthy.”
“You’re sure you left that day? On the fourteenth?”
“Of course I’m sure! You think I can’t remember a week ago?”
Nick held the specimen up and studied it closely. Then he looked back at Mr. Allen.
“Care to try again?”
Nick dragged a chair from the breakfast nook into the family room and sat down opposite the man, with the tiny white specimen still writhing in the forceps in his right hand. He offered the magnifier to the man. “I want you to take a look at something.”
“I can’t look at that. Get that thing away from me!”
“Oh come now,” Nick whispered. “You have a stronger stomach than that—don’t you, Mr. Allen?”
The man looked startled; he hesitated, then reluctantly took the magnifier in his left hand.
“Pull up a chair,” Nick called back to the deputy. “Learn something.” Nick slowly extended the forceps. “Take a look at that end. Tell me what you see.”
The magnifier trembled in the man’s hand.
“Little lines,” he mumbled. “Sort of like slits.”
“How many little lines?”
“Give the deputy a look, Mr. Allen. Those ‘little lines’ are called posterior spiracles—think of them as ‘breathing holes.’ The maggot you’re holding is the larva of a common blow fly. That fly landed on your wife’s body shortly after her death and began to lay eggs in the softest tissues—the eyes, the mouth, and so on. Those eggs hatched into larvae, and the larvae began to feed and grow.
“Now when a larva grows, it passes through three distinct stages of development. Are you following me, Mr. Allen? Because this is the important part: The larva doesn’t develop those breathing holes until the third stage. And after many studies, we know exactly how long it takes for this species of fly to reach that third stage of development. Guess what, Mr. Allen? It takes more than a week.”

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