After the First Death tells the story of the terrorist hijacking of a bus full of schoolchildren. The book follows three central characters:
- Miro, the youngest and least experienced of the four terrorists, who lives in the shadow of his mysterious partner Artkin and is assigned the task of killing the bus driver.
- Kate, a high school student who happened to be filling in for the regular driver on the day of the hijacking.
- And Ben, the son of a US general involved with the ransom demands being made by the terrorists, who narrates his thoughts after the incident.
Despite the high-stakes premise, the book involves little action, takes place in only a few confined locations, and is focused on the inner workings of the characters' minds as they attempt to navigate their situation... efforts which, in typical Cormier fashion, soon go horribly wrong.
This book provides examples of:
- Ambiguously Brown: Miro and Artkin seem vaguely Middle Eastern, but their exact origin is never specified.
- Anyone Can Die: Of the major characters, Antibbe, Raymond, Stroll, Artkin, Kate and Ben all die. Miro and Ben's father are the only survivors, and neither are well-off by the end.
- Befriending the Enemy: Kate tries to connect Miro, knowing he intends to kill her. It fails.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Artkin subjects Ben to what is only described as "the fingers." True to life, he cracks under the pain after only 32 seconds, which Miro apparently considers impressive.
- Driven to Suicide: Ben Marchand apparently leapt off a bridge, due to his father's machinations taking advantage of his vulnerability and putting him through torture as a strategic maneuver.
- Downer Ending: Arguably outdoes both The Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese. Artkin, Antibbe and Stroll all die to the police; two children are killed by the terrorists; Miro kills Kate shortly after escaping; Ben commits suicide; Ben's father General Marchand goes insane due to his guilt and sorrow over the events and apparently lives out his life in a mental hospital, taking on his son's persona in an attempt to find forgiveness for himself. The sole survivor, Miro, abandons the last of his humanity and emotion due to Kate's attempts to manipulate him, choosing to embrace Artkin's ideology and continue their "war." Perhaps the only redeeming quality is that most of the children survived.
- The Hero Dies: Kate, the most heroic character in the book, is killed by Miro at the very end.
- Greater-Scope Villain: Sedeete, the terrorist leader who commands the group Artkin and Miro are part of.
- Hope Spot: Kate very nearly manages to escape by driving the bus away, only for the engine to stall by pure chance. Later, she begs for Artkin to spare Raymond and kill her instead, and he seems to consider it, but chooses not to. Throughout the story she also attempts to persuade Miro to let her go and seems to have some impact on him, but he kills her in the end.
- Hostage Situation: The central premise.
- Literary Allusion Title: Taken from the final line of Dylan Thomas's poem "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, of a Child in London."
- Luke, I Might Be Your Father: As part of a last ditch effort to delay death, Kate starts trying to convince Miro that Artkin is actually his father, pointing out ambiguities in the story he told her about his childhood and connections in their appearance. Miro eventually rejects the theory, but it's left unclear if she might have been onto something or not.
- Pyrrhic Victory: The US military successfully foils the terrorist plot, but several innocent children die in the process and the general in charge goes insane after his use of his son as a pawn in the negotiations causes him to commit suicide.
- The Reveal: Ben died after the bus incident. The sections narrated by him take place in the mind of his guilt-ridden father.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The terrorists fail to accomplish anything except killing two children and a teenager. Most of the children survive, and Inner Delta is unaffected.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Intensely, brutally cynical, like almost all of Cormier's work.
- Tomato in the Mirror: Ben isn't writing after the bus incident. In reality, Ben killed himself and his father is attempting to redeem himself by imagining how he and his son might have interacted while actually being confined in a mental hospital.
- Tragic Villain: Miro is clearly a troubled young man who complies with the terrorists group due to the trauma of his brother's death and his upbringing in refugee camps, ideological brainwashing throughout his childhood, and a desire to be accepted by his friends. Though he is a sympathetic and in many ways pitiful character, he also willingly takes part in some truly reprehensible acts as a result.
- Villain Protagonist: Miro is a terrorist participating in the hostage-taking of children.
- Would Hurt a Child: Artkin fully intends to kill the children if his demands are not met. Miro doesn't take any issue with this. Early on, they accidentally poison one of the children while drugging the group and Artkin displays his body to demonstrate their disregard for American laws and morals. At the end, as retribution for the accidental death of one of their men, Artkin kills Raymond, and even goes so far as to reject Kate's offer to kill her instead, insisting that it must be a child who dies.
- Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: A major theme of the book.