Book Review: Always the First to Die by R. J. Jacobs

R. J. Jacob's Always the First to Die follows a former horror movie actress who returns to the set of her most famous film... and is soon entangled in a series of terrifying events that resemble the plot of that one cursed movie. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

Once upon a time, Lexi was a horror movie starlet, plucked from obscurity to play Casey the Party Girl, the first victim of the serial killer in cult horror director Rick Plummer’s smash hit film Breathless. As a teenager growing up on the Florida Keys, Lexi has long wanted to escape to the wider world. When a production crew filming on her island contacts her high school’s drama club asking for teenage extras, Lexi leaps at the opportunity.

Her bit role in the movie shot at Rick’s storied Pinecrest Estate unexpectedly turns into a major part. Instead of pursuing this promise of movie stardom though, Lexi follows her heart. Cam Plummer, Rick’s son, is second assistant director but dreams of becoming a novelist far removed from his dad’s Hollywood world. After she and Cam fall in love, Lexi turns her back on acting, and not just because of her newfound romantic bliss. The end of filming was marred by a spectacular accident that claimed the life of one of the movie’s stars, capping a production plagued by strange accidents and disturbing incidents. Ghoulishly, Rick leveraged the publicity to catapult the movie into infamy, serving to estrange himself further from Cam and Lexi as they built their lives and, later, welcomed their daughter Quinn.

Now Quinn is the same age Lexi was when she starred in Breathless, and wants the same shot her mother had. While Lexi still lives in Florida, she hasn’t been back to Pinecrest in years, and forbids Quinn from traveling the three hours down to join Rick as he films the sequel. But Quinn has an ulterior motive for going that has its basis in Cam’s unexpected death in a boating accident there almost two years prior. When a frantic Lexi arrives at Pinecrest in pursuit of her wayward child, the teenager demands that they go collect her father’s personal effects:

“Jesus Christ, Mom. I’ll go with you if you’re so scared.”

 

I turn on my heel. “Hey!”

 

Quinn clenches her jaw. I can tell she knows she’s gone too far.

 

I have to remember I’m talking to a teenager, a human with no developmental concept of risk. She’ll find the slimmest of margins to get to what she wants; I admire the determination while it scares me to death. She’s been talking about retrieving Cam’s typewriter since the week he passed. I force myself to breathe. What are the odds that whoever attacked Marla is still hiding in the estate now? Slim, but there’s no way I want her setting foot inside.

You see, this latest iteration of filming is proving to be just as disaster-prone as the first was. Marla Moretti, the lead in the original movie, is unhappy with her part in the sequel, threatening loudly and often to shut the whole thing down. When Lexi encounters the actress while driving in to Pinecrest, she learns that Marla was attacked. Worse, Marla claims that Rick is the person trying to kill her. Lexi isn’t a hundred percent confident in Marla’s account, but she’s wary enough of the presence of some malevolent force to want to protect her daughter from any harm, whether it be from Rick, an unknown assailant or the hurricane devastating the Keys.

But when Quinn finally shows Lexi what she’s found over the course of her clandestine investigations, Lexi realizes Quinn may be right, and that foul play has been at work not only on the set of Rick’s movies but also in Cam’s disappearance. With the hurricane stranding them on the island, Lexi must summon all the experience at her disposal in order to keep both herself and her daughter safe, as someone with murderous intentions hones in on them in the aftermath of the storm.

In this she’s helped by her acting experience and by her late husband’s extensive field of expertise. Before he died, Cam was working on a survival guide inspired by horror movies, as he explained to his wife:

[“]This will be more like how to survive by mastering the genre’s themes. Did you know horror is the only genre named for the feeling it aims to elicit,” he says.

 

“I… had never thought of that.”

 

“It’s true. And there’s something archetypal about it. Kids can describe the villains in scary movies they’ve never seen. The monsters become urban legends, probably because we’re all afraid of the same stuff.”

Cam’s voice is her steadfast interior guide as disaster strikes and the body count rises. But what will Lexi do when it seems her one true love has betrayed her?

Always the First to Die masterfully uses horror tropes and cinephile insights to present its fast-paced tale of suspense in the Florida Keys, as Lexi must force a reckoning between past and present in order to secure a future for her beloved daughter. There are plot twists aplenty as this novel ricochets from set piece to set piece. It’s an homage to slasher films with just the right amount of the supernatural mixed in, that also sensitively explores family bonds. Fans of scary movies will surely enjoy this tribute to the genre.

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