First-time novelist Crook manages to make ex-cop, current crime-scene photographer and junkie Jackie Lyons a relatable character without alienating the reader in a scathing mystery that plumbs the underbelly of human nature in the search for a serial killer: “I cheated on my husband, shirked my responsibilities, slept with my bosses and hooked myself on pills and smack.” The barely sober Lyons shadows Sergeant Adam McPeak of the Memphis PD as he leads the investigation into a string of gruesome murders by the “Playhouse Killer,” named for the carefully staged murders mimicking classic plays, the victims in graphically arranged tableau.
As Narcotics Anonymous sponsor McPeak does his best to keep Jackie straight, only she can survive this private hell (one that Crook describes with eerie insight and no judgment). Nevertheless, the two make a good team, sharing insights and suspicions in a way that wouldn’t be possible for Jackie without her badge. Clutching the used Leica she is still paying for, Jackie snaps intimate crime scene photographs, supplementing her income with on-scene accident pictures for personal injury attorneys—and she has been known to sell select images to private collectors of such macabre interests for the right price. Not quite the same as carrying a shield, but Jackie has an eye for the work, her cop-brain never really disengaging.
She doesn’t let conflicts of interest trouble her too much. One of her clients is a flamboyant queen who provides shelter to a changing stable of young men, even though Michi Mori may be a person of interest in learning the identity of the serial murderer. But then ambiguity is familiar to a junkie who daily dances with life and death and the siren call of the needle. Following a natural intuition in police work and when ferreting out critical details to capture with her lens, Jackie is a study in contradictions. Drawn to the dark side by nature, she is comfortable with seediness and the perversions of humanity and the strange exhilaration of creativity, the sharp edges of good and evil caught in a frame—or in the plunge of the needle into a vein.
The Leica seems to have a mind of its own as Jackie assembles random images that draw her closer to the identity of the killer. The man selling her the camera, who may or may not have murdered his wife, presents other challenges as Jackie finds herself visited by nightmares and ghosts, her own urge to self-destruct and the malicious intentions of a killer playing out a warped fantasy. Peopling his landscape with cops, queens, theater folk and those who coexist with poverty on an intimate level, Crook mixes the sacred and the profane with a glib mastery of understatement and an understanding of how the world works on this level. The result is shocking, edgy, ugly, stimulating and mesmerizing in equal measure, from the skeletal frame of a brilliant photographer to the twisted mind of a murderer and the bloody carnage in between. What might Crook offer us next?