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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Jeff Crook: "The Sleeping and the Dead"

Author:  Jeff Crook
Title:  The Sleeping and the Dead
Plot Type:  Ghostly Horror Mystery
Ratings:  V4; S2; H2
Publisher:  Minotaur Books (7/2012)

     Mary Jacqueline ("Jackie") Pastor Lyons is an on-and-off recovering heroin addict, a former vice detective for the Memphis Police Department (MPD), and a talented photographer. When she's sober, she does free-lance crime-scene documentation for the MPD, a job she got through the recommendation of her Narcotics Anonymous mentor and former MPD colleague, Sergeant Adam McPeake. 

     Jackie is a self-destructive mess of a heroine who seems to destroy every moment of happiness and success she has ever achieved. She describes her childhood self as "the female incarnation of Huck Finn" (p. 150) and provides clues to her character in unexamined asides like this one: "She reminded me of a girl I had once tried to drown." (p. 98) She thinks to herself, "I had a tendency to destroy everything I touched, nothing lasted once I got my claws into it, whether it was a career or a relationship or even something as innocent as a car or an apartment." (p. 45)

     Jackie's marriage has been over for four years, ever since her rich husband found out that Jackie had been cheating on him. In addition to her kamikaze habits, Jackie has been able to see ghosts since she was a child. In her early years, Jackie's brother, Sean, could also see ghosts, so she had at least one person who believed her, but after Sean was murdered by gay-bashers when the siblings were in their teens, she can't mention the ghosts to anyone because they immediately think that she is having a drug-inflicted hallucination. When she isn't sure whether a person is ghostly or real, she looks at her camera's viewscreen, where only corporeal humans show upup 'til now, that is. 

     The story follows Jackie through a week of her life and as it begins, she has just bought a used cameraa Leica M8from James St. Michael, a hot guy who seems shy and much too young for streetwise Jackie. Nevertheless, there's an attraction there. When she learns that James is a long-time suspect in the murder of his wife, Ashley, Jackie isn't sure how to react. Her gut reaction tells her that James is a good guy, but she's never been right about a man in her whole life, so she definitely can't trust her instincts. To purchase the camera, Jackie has borrowed money from the eccentric, slimy, and very wealthy Michi Mori, a Japanese man who spends his time partying with groups of young gay men in his huge mansion. Michi-san pays Jackie a lot of money for her most grisly crime photos, so Jackie keeps selling them to him, even though she knows that if the MPD finds out, she's in big trouble.  The constant exposure to horrific crime scenes eats away at Jackie: "Every drowned baby and every bloody smeer [sic] on the road chipped away at me until almost nothing remained but a cold lizard brain, flicking its tongue and tasting an opportunity to make a buck. The money took the pain away for an hour or two. I couldn't stand to see a dead dog on the side of the road but it was nothing to shoot photographs of some bum cut in half on a train track, because I knew Michi would write me a fat check. But no matter how I tried to kill the horrorwith drugs, sex, oblivionit never went away." (p. 48)

     The central plot revolves around the MPD's search for the Playhouse Killer, a serial murderer of gay men who poses his victims in graphically described, gory scenes from various plays, from Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer to William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Throughout most of the book, we never see the actual murdersjust the stomach-churning aftermath. Ever since the murder spree began two years ago, Jackie has photographed all of the Playhouse Killer's crime scenes, and she is just as determined as the MPD to track him down. As Jackie uses her new camera to photograph the Playhouse Killer's handiwork, the camera seems to have a mind of its own as it snaps some shots seemingly on its own, without Jackie's assistance or knowledge. Then, a female ghost begins appearing in Jackie's apartment at night, leaving physical evidence of her presence in the form of an opened door and knotted shoestrings. As the deaths mount, the clues accumulate, and the story moves toward its climactic showdown between Jackie and the Killer.

     I have mixed feelings about this book. The plot is compelling, with its layers of details all coalescing into a breath-holding climax and resolution, but I can't quite believe Jackie as a female character. She reminds me a great deal of Elmore Leonard's Jackie Brown character in Rum Punch, particularly as Pam Grier played her in Tarantino's film. Both characters were created by men and are really more male than female in their actions and emotions (or lack of). Both are drawn as street-tough, hard-hearted womenwhich is all well and goodbut they don't live their lives or react to situations (or people) as the vast majority of women would. In this book, most of Jackie's interior monologues are not introspective in any sense; instead, they are used to provide the reader with a straightforward presentation of background information and personal history without the self-examination and soul-searching that would be natural for a damaged female heroine like Jackie. Jackie's budding relationship with James is, for me, unbelievable because she never shows any real feelings for him. She rarely considers her appearance, always showing up with uncombed hair, disheveled clothing and unwashed body. Most women are just too body conscious to behave that way. When Jackie does change clothes, she just tosses the dirty ones onto the ever-growing mound on the floor of her shower stall. This sounds like something that Lee Child's Jim Reacher would do, or Columbo, but not a woman raised in a middle class home in the southern heartland, no matter how far she's fallen. Now, go ahead and accuse me of female stereotyping if you will, but the fact remains that Jackie as written here just doesn't work for me. In fact, I would have enjoyed the story much more if Jackie had been Jack.

     On the positive side, Crook tells a good story here, with twists and turns that are mostly unpredictable. Quirky characters like Michi and his buddy, Cole, add to the entertainment. Red herrings are few and far between, so pay attention to all of the details as you read the storyprobably in one page-turning, marathon session.

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