The Sleeping and the Dead by Jeff Crook is the first in a new paranormal mystery series featuring a crime scene photographer who has a bit of ghostly assistance (available July 3, 2012).
The Sleeping and the Dead introduces us to Jackie Lyons, a crime scene photographer in Memphis, Tennessee. She is a forty-six-year-old divorcee who also happens to be a recovering addict, her drug of choice being heroin. This heroin addiction got her kicked off the Memphis police force four years before the story begins, and if it weren’t for her former co-worker and current sponsor at Narcotics Anonymous, Sergeant Adam McPeake, Jackie would not have her current job as crime scene photographer.
Jeff Crook infuses Jackie with the jaded world outlook typical in stories set on the edge of society:
It was all too easy to forget the people I had photographed, all the bodies and parts of bodies, the human wreckage of so many lives thrown away. I had become numb to them, except the Play House Killer victims. For most of the others, it was a job. I took the pictures and sold them to Chief Billet, to insurance companies, to people with lawsuits and personal injury lawyers, and to Michi Mori. Meanwhile, every drowned baby and every bloody smear 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 horror—with drugs, sex, oblivion—it never went away.
Jackie is not your typical photographer. Sure, she’s got a great eye, but she has her own “special friends” who just happen to be dead. She has been able to see the dead people (cue your The Sixth Sense jokes here) since she was a young girl.
On bad days the bad ones would crowd around so, it got hard to tell people apart, who you could talk to and who you couldn’t. I could photograph the dead all day long, because they’re just meat, but I couldn’t deal with the grief of the dead. They brought the grave near enough to see myself in it. It was too much. But without grief, you aren’t human. That’s what separates people from monsters.
Crook introduces the reader to the strange talent of Jackie at the Orpheum Theater. That is the crime scene of the latest murder by “The Playhouse Killer,” a criminal who stages victims in murder scenes from famous plays, usually from William Shakespeare. In this murder, however, the killer uses Christopher Marlowe’s Edward the Second: a male body on stage with a mattress over it, his flesh cauterized (I’ll leave it to you to read and fill in the blanks on this one).
What keeps Jackie involved in the case is that she recognizes the young dead man. She had seen him earlier that morning, leaving the house of Michi Mori, an extremely wealthy man who “entertains” young men at his mansion. Mr. Mori also happens to be one of Jackie’s best customers, illegally buying crime scene photos.
Along with the primary mystery, Jackie stumbles into another when she buys a fancy new camera from James St. Michael, a man she knew back in her cop days. St. Michael is a widower, his wife having been killed and the police having liked James himself for the crime despite all evidence to the contrary. Not coincidentally, the most recent apparition that Jackie sees in her bedroom is a young woman who just happens to resemble James’s dead wife.
And then things really take off.
Crook writes in the first person with a tone that is tongue-in-cheek, crass, dry, and witty: “The industrial gothic interior of the apartment begged to be photographed, but what it really needed was a model to bring out its character.” Or, early in the novel: “The lobby was filled with cops dicking the dog.” And a personal favorite: “He wore no pajama top and had tits bigger than mine, though his sagged like something out of a National Geographic magazine. He sported greasy blond hair and a bushy hay-colored Viking beard littered with enough yellow crumbs to reconstruct a whole Twinkie.”
When I started reading this book, I had a hard time getting behind the character of Jackie. I mean, she’s a junkie, self-sabotages almost everything in her life, and constantly makes the wrong (and often immoral) decisions. At the start, she was at rock bottom, and her life was nearly the complete opposite of mine. Nonetheless, as the story went on, things slowly began to change for me. All in all, Crook’s tale, with its supernatural twist, won me over and convinced me that for the fan of the gritty, it absolutely had something to offer.
Vanessa L. Parker is a jewelry artist and avid reader. You can see her work at Betoj Designs.
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