Erin E. Adams’ 2022 Jackal: A Novel is a stand-alone supernatural mystery novel.
Having successfully escaped Johnstown, Pennsylvania (most famous for a May 31, 1889, flood and a 1923 ethnic cleansing) for a career as a doctor, Haitian-American Liz Rocher is very reluctantly returning to Johnstown to attend the wedding of her best friend Melissa “Mel” Parker.
Very white Mel is marrying her very not-white long-time boyfriend Garrett Washington. As one might expect in a town with Johnstown’s history, many people (including the bride’s family) are not pleased by the marriage. However, the event itself goes off as well as one could hope.
Liz takes her eyes off Mel and Garrett’s daughter Caroline. Only briefly, but long enough for the little girl to vanish.
Johnstown is surrounded by forest and the relics of an industrial past. It’s not a great place for a little girl to be wandering on her own, even in summer. If the forest were the only factor, there would still be reason to be concerned. The wilds are the least of concerns for the adults.
Caroline is not the first black girl to vanish near Johnstown. Keisha Woodson, a schoolmate of Mel and Liz, also vanished. Several days after her disappearance, her corpse was discovered, gutted like a deer with her heart nowhere to be seen. The killer was never caught.
While Caroline is black and therefore unlikely to inspire enthusiastic action from the local cops, her mom, Mel, is a pretty white woman; her distress makes the news and ensures that a protracted search will ensue. Having grown up in Johnstown, Liz knows better than to trust Caroline’s fate to the dubiously diligent police. Visitor Liz undertakes her own efforts to find Caroline.
Liz does not find Caroline. She discovers something much more alarming. Keisha and Caroline are not the only black girls to vanish from Jonestown. For decades, there has been a string of disappearances, always at solstice. Some victims’ corpses were later found, others vanished forever. The black families in town know to keep their daughters inside when the solstice approaches. Caroline vanished slightly before the solstice. Otherwise, her disappearance fits a very alarming pattern.
An ensuing revelation is almost as alarming. The police taking an unusual degree of interest in the case because someone—the killer perhaps, or simply someone who wants the media coverage of the case to end—is eager to frame some hapless patsy for Caroline’s disappearance. The best candidate? Someone with few friends, who isn’t white. Which is to say, Liz herself.
I wondered if Johnstown existed or if it was a stand in for a particular sort of Pennsylvania town1. It exists. It doesn’t seem to have a serial killer active (or if it does, that fact isn’t in the Wikipedia entry2) but it’s a real community in an actual US state.
Readers might ask “are you sure this is supernatural? Because it sounds like a mundane serial killer who murders people over decades because they target people the cops don’t care about.” This is very much a supernatural novel, even if the supernatural elements are not mentioned in the preceding synopsis.
But the plot does bring to mind such long running serial murderers like the Robert Pickton case, the Highway of Tears scandal, and the Bruce McArthur case, in which a killer or killers carried out their homicidal hobby for decades because the cops either didn’t care that persons of a certain type were being killed or actively approved of the killings. In the case of Johnstown’s serial killings, the dead girls have more in common than being black. Knowing what that additional element might have been (no spoilers) would not help the police, or the readers, narrow down the list of suspects.
Considered as a thriller, Jackal does its job. I found the book unputdownable, as I suspect other readers will. Adams keeps the audience guessing as to whether or not Caroline will be found in time and whether or not Liz will avoid being scapegoated.
I should perhaps add that I liked the characters, in particular Liz. She’s a highly motivated, bright investigator.
1: See, for example, Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman mysteries, set in “Grantham, Ontario”, a thinly disguised St. Catharines.
2: Mind you, part of the point of the novel is that such a serial killer (supernatural or otherwise) might not be noted in the Wikipedia entry, because murdering black women is not sufficiently notable.