"Always the First to Die" Book Review

Written by Tony Jones

Published by Sourcebooks Landmark

always the first to die r j jacobs poster large

Written by R.J. Jacobs
2022, 291 pages, Fiction
Released on 13th September 2022


Always the First to Die is the third R.J. Jacobs novel since 2019, all of which are psychological thrillers that blend elements of horror. Considering Jacobs runs a private practice as a psychologist and has taught Abnormal Psychology, one imagines he brings first-hand ideas ready to be repackaged in his page-turners. He is also undoubtedly also a horror film fan, as it would be difficult to author a novel like this and not be knee-deep into the intricacies of the genre. The plot is top-heavy with film references and even the title Always the First to Die nods toward the drop-dead gorgeous young women (often scantily clad) who are the first to be despatched by the serial killer who lurks in any slasher horror film worth its salt.

The structure of Always the First to Die is nicely balanced with two narratives told almost two decades apart. They do not mirror each other, but there are similarities in that both are based on the making of an iconic horror film called ‘Breathless.’ In the flashback nineties story, teenager Lexi auditions to be an extra in the film, but after the director falls out with another actor, she is elevated to be an early victim of the serial killer. The film becomes a worldwide smash and Lexi (who does not pursue a career as an actor) becomes famous for Andy Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes.’ If the title ‘Breathless’ was intended to mirror ‘Scream’, it misses the mark slightly, as ‘Breathless’ is already the name of a classic New Wave French Film, which was remade in the USA in the eighties with Richard Gere.

The majority of the action takes place in the present day with the adult Lexi (now a librarian) having a teenage daughter about the age she was when she made her cinematic debut. In the opening stages we realise her daughter Quinn has sneaked off to spend time with her grandfather Rick Plummer, who is also the director of ‘Breathless’, whom she realises is planning on shooting ‘Breathless 2’. However, the plot is considerably more complex; the previous year Lexi’s husband (Rick’s son Cam) disappeared, presumed dead, on his father’s Pinecrest Estate on the Florida Keys, where both films were shot. The story is complex and although it is never dull, neither does it truly catch fire and have me on the edge of my seat. There are a couple of twists along the way, but the proceedings lack genuine scares.

Some of the best thrills centre on Lexi attempting to find Quinn whilst being estranged from her father-in-law. Considering Plummer is portrayed as a legendary cult film director, he contributes little to the book and is a rather dull old man, and the reader sees little of his fabled eccentricities. As Lexi heads to the Florida Keys in search for her daughter, she has another major worry which dominates large section of the book; a category four hurricane has locked the local area down. I am unconvinced battling the natural elements adds that much suspense to the novel and possibly pushes the story further away from horror into action territory. However, the fear and anxiety Lexi feels for her child is palpable and helps keep the tension levels high.

The relationship between mother and daughter is one of the strengths of Always the First to Die as Lexi does not want her child to make the same mistakes she did, whilst her daughter continues to silently grieve for the father she still believes to be alive. But again Plummer, the grandfather film director, has little to contribute to the complex family dynamics and remains in the background. I did wonder what Lexi gets so uptight about and considering the only voice the story has is her first-person narrative she did at times test my patience.

R.J. Jacobs does his best to throw as many horror film tropes into the mix as possible, with the ‘cursed film’ playing a big part which is explored in the nineties flashbacks. Although these scenes are nicely portrayed and show how Lexi meets her future husband and the origins of the curse, they do not add a huge amount to the plot, even if they do show a slightly more animated Rich Plummer when he was a much hungrier and ambitious young director. Along the way there are several references to horror films, but few are naturally written into the action and come across as slightly forced. There is even a potential supernatural touch thrown into the mix and a spin on the Final Girl story.

Even though there are multiple story strands and it is fascinating to see how they all interconnect together via the dual timelines, the main hook which hangs everything together is slightly underwhelming. Once again it leans too heavily on a classic horror trope, as whilst the characters are stuck together during the huge storm, there is a killer on the loose. This slasher element of the story, where there are limited suspects and lots of neurotic characters, is not enough to weave everything together with the genuine killer not being unmasked until well into the film (and no, I didn’t guess correct!). But neither was I blown away by the big reveal.

Always the First to Die is a decent page-turner which easily held my attention, but there are a lot of books similar to this on the market and it lacks the edge to separate itself from the crowded pack. I frequently come across books written in this style, but there is a decent chance other readers will get a much fresher experience from it than I.


Overall: 3.5 Star Rating Cover
Buy from Amazon US.
Buy from Amazon UK.

This page includes affiliate links where Horror DNA may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Tony Jones
Staff Reviewer
Such is Tony’s love of books, he has spent well over twenty years working as a school librarian where he is paid to talk to kids about horror. He is a Scotsman in exile who has lived in London for over two decades and credits discovering SE Hinton and Robert Cormier as a 13-year-old for his huge appetite for books. Tony previously spent five years writing The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was, a history book very few people bought. In the past he has written for Horror Novel Reviews and is a regular contributor to The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, often specialising in YA horror.
Other articles by this writer



Join Us!

Hit the buttons below to follow us, you won't regret it...