Jackie Lyons, the protagonist of Jeff Crook’s 2012 mystery, The Sleeping and the Dead, is a crime-scene photographer cum detective. She’s also a mess, but in Crook’s newest release, The Covenant, she’s kicked her heroin addiction and now has steady, albeit shaky, work. Jackie still occasionally sees ghosts, but she’s not letting the experience destroy her. Still, when the charismatic Deacon Falgoust asks her to photograph an antebellum home his church is renovating in a ritzy Memphis suburb, she’s reluctant. Her bad feeling is borne out when she arrives at the house only to witness the suicide of Sam Loftin.
Trouble is, Sam Loftin’s actually been dead a couple of hours by the time Jackie arrives, and what his spirit shows her makes her pretty sure his death wasn’t a suicide at all. Somewhat reluctantly, she sets out to find out what really happened to Loftin—and in the process stumbles onto a hornet’s nest of Southern politics, religion, history, weird family dynamics, and creepy ghosts.
On the surface, this is a pretty straightforward supernatural mystery. Jackie is a bit in the vein of Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer—pretty, snarky, damaged. The families at the heart of The Covenant are well-drawn, and the suburban menace is on-point, but in this book much of the pleasure comes from seeing the way each character’s initial atrociousness comes to be most fully realized, not in being surprised by unexpected developments. Nevertheless, the identity of the murderer comes as a genuine surprise that, upon its revelation, also seems delightfully well-established.
There are other pleasant surprises here. Crook’s deft handling of religion, particularly the temptations faced by the men who lead congregations, adds a lot of interesting tension to the story. The two pastors at the center of the book are true believers, each in his own way, and the conflict between them—the Prosperity Gospel versus a message of radical love and acceptance—feels very genuine. World-views are in conflict, and there’s no easy compromise between the two. And each man’s shortcomings makes him a plausible suspect in Loftin’s murder.
Crook, a lifelong resident of the Memphis area, also has a good eye for Tennessee politics, from the order-reaffirming bacchanalia of a politician’s coon supper to the ways in which local politics informs national politics, and vice versa. The local sheriff who causes such consternation for Jackie by declaring Loftin’s death a suicide—thereby smoothing the way for the aforementioned politician and his good buddy, the prosperity pastor—is rewarded with an enormous supply of high-tech equipment for his department, something that does not escape Jackie’s notice.
Jackie is not only an astute observer of the human condition, she’s also darkly funny. Confronting a suspect, for instance, she says, “This family had more money tied up in guns under the bed than I had in the world.” There’s also a nice running joke about how, in spite of being a photographer by trade, she doesn’t, for various reasons, comes away with any useable photos.
Fans of mysteries, hard-boiled women, and juicy ghost stories will surely enjoy The Covenant.
Betsy Phillips is a writer living in Whites Creek, Tennessee.