Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: A Novel written by Tom Franklin

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (2010) uses for its title a mnemonic kids in the south use to learn to spell Mississippi. I read an interview that the author fought to have this title. Well, anyway. This southern mystery, set in a tiny town in Southeast Mississippi, draws you in almost immediately. The story is short and is told in third person. I don’t know how you would categorize this novel. The depiction of the south, its culture and language is well written. The story is about two boyhood friends of opposite race, social and economic background who reunite after 25 years. We see how lies and secrets brought them together and then eventually push them apart. To quote the author: this is a sad book and… this story, this book wasn’t for me. I didn’t care for it no matter how well written it was.

Larry Ott is the only son of a white, middle-class family. His father is a mechanic who loves to tell stories. Larry’s life is depicted as someone who was strange, lonely and never given a chance. He didn’t have any friends so he kept to himself and read a lot. He’s a big Stephen King fan like the author. Larry was a lonesome kid whose mother would often pray that he would find a true friend someday. Then he meets Silas “32″ Jones (who prefers to be called 32 his baseball number), and the two become friends and develop a bond. Silas is black and poor and stays with his mother in a hunting cabin on the property belonging to Larry and his family. The author goes on to show how the two boys build their friendship over a brief period of time.

Then something bad happens. Larry finds himself being accused of murder. The girl he went to high school with disappears. Her body was never found and without a confession from Larry, the last one to see her alive, the case goes nowhere. For the past 25 years Larry has lived under suspicion that he kidnapped and murdered this girl and the town has ostracized him for it. When we meet Larry, he’s in his forties. He lives alone and in the same house he grew up in. His father is dead and his mother, who he visits with often, is in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. He sticks to his routine, going to work at the mechanic shop everyday even though he doesn’t have any customers.

It’s present day and another girl is missing. She’s been missing for the last nine days. The daughter of the richest family in the town, the cops suspect Larry and give him grief by doing regular searches of his home and harass him. Silas “32″ Jones has a secret: he knew Larry way back when but doesn’t say a word to anybody about it. He even ducks Larry’s calls. The two men were friends due to circumstances that I cannot discuss but this relationship is one that Silas seems reluctant to elaborate on. There’s a reason for his silence and that’s what made this story so disappointing for me. I am planning to go into spoilers after this point. If you don’t care for spoilers then this is your cue to leave.

While the author thought it great to create non-stereotypical characters, the story was predictable and stereotypical to me. I found nothing surprising that Larry’s dad fathered a child with a black woman, out-of-wedlock and then sent her away to get rid of the problem. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together. We never did learn definitively what happened to the girl who Larry was accused of killing in high school. It was assumed that her drunken step-father killed her. I can’t figure out why Silas stayed quiet all these years later knowing how Larry was being treated. I’m not sure how long he was back but he knew the truth behind that girl being missing. He’d left town to pursue a baseball career and then comes back and is now a constable directing traffic and not doing any real police work.

Maybe I missed something but I didn’t understand why Silas avoided Larry and lied about certain things. That wasn’t explained to my satisfaction. I understand that caution was maybe needed to avoid trouble due to the attitudes of racism of the south at that time but 25 years later, come on.

I thought the plot was mediocre and the characters were not very memorable.shrug I thought Larry’s life was just pathetic. He reeked of loneliness and craved companionship. I was immediately sympathetic to him the more we got to know him in the story. I don’t do well with stories that have characters being ostracized. I hate it and don’t like reading it. Again, this story just wasn’t for me. I was mad when I finished this book and I’m sure that wasn’t the result the author was looking for. I urge anyone reading this post to read the book for yourself if you have an interest. I see that I am in the minority because readers whose opinions I respect enjoyed this book very much but this one didn’t work for me, sorry. My grade, C-. Average, unremarkable.

Notes: Both Maxine and Bernadette enjoyed this novel and gave it their highest marks/recommendations.
The novel was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2011 but lost to Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist. But, the author did recently win the CWA Gold Dagger Award for 2011. Many people cite the reason they enjoyed this book is because it is complex and full of layers and because the characters were well written and sympathetic. I agree with the sympathetic part but still thought the story was nothing spectacular. Just goes to show you who how differently we view things. Also, I bought my copy of this book, looking in Calibre, in July of this year, so I’d had it for awhile. What prompted me to read it now was hearing all the great things being said/written about it in the mystery reading community recently. While I am always glad to read a new author, this is a one time thing for me. See, this book left me depressed so with that said, I am looking for something that is the complete opposite, that is silly and funny. Might have to reread Janet Evanovich to get my smile back.

Edited: to elaborate on a point

About Keishon

I love reading crime fiction.
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13 Responses to Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: A Novel written by Tom Franklin

  1. Sarah says:

    Wow! I’ve only read about half of your review as I have just bought the book and didn’t want to read the spoilers. I can’t wait to read it now – it obviously provokes mixed reactions.

  2. SarahT says:

    Yours is the first negative review I’ve read of this book. Interesting. I might still read it, just to see what the fuss is about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. I’m really sorry you didn’t enjoy it more Keishon, though I’m glad to know you had already bought it before reading my review so I don’t have to feel guilty that I ‘made’ you buy a book you ended up not liking.

    I guess we just reacted to this very differently, but the world would be a sad old place if we were all the same. My impression of Silas’ behaviour (in not telling people about his role in the events that Larry was accused of) was that the reasons were complex: a mixture perhaps of the fact a black boy would hardly have made a believable witness in a town like that – how could he even admit to going out with the white girl in that place? Would he be believed? Or lynched for admitting to sleeping with the girl? If not lynched would he have lost his chance at a scholarship? his only chance at a different life? That’s a lot to give up – especially for a young boy/man. And as he gets older I’m sure guilt plays a part in his failure to re-connect with Larry – he knows he should have spoken up earlier but it would be hard to admit to his former friend. I can’t condone his behaviour but I can certainly understand it – it can be impossible to do the right thing sometimes, even when you know it’s the right thing.

    I do agree the book has lots to make readers angry and even sad, though I think the ending was hopeful, but I think that is sometimes the point of fiction – to show us how our behaviour as human beings can impact the people around us in ways we don’t imagine.

    • Keishon says:

      Thanks Bernadette, I just felt so strongly about this story. I did think about those things, what you mention about Silas and the racism of the time keeping him from speaking out. I just didn’t understand and felt impatient with his slow admission of being friends with Larry and providing some clarity that would have saved Larry a lot of grief in the present day. I guess I just found this hard to read and like I said I don’t do well with characters being ostracized and then later find out that it was the result of someone else’s actions. I am an emotional reader, I will admit and my thoughts for this book reflect that. I even waited a day or two before writing my thoughts down. No doubt I am in the tiny minority and I am surprised myself at my reaction to this story. It is well written but I just didn’t care for it.

  4. Maxine says:

    Sorry, too, that you did not like the book as much as I did, but nice review anyway ;-). I do agree with you that there was nothing surprising about the book – to me it was obvious about Larry/Silas’s relationship and who killed both girls very early on, but for me this was not the important element of the book. I think Silas kept quiet out of fear (actually irrespectively of whether he was black, in my opinion) – he just did not want to admit he was the last person to see the girl alive and hence take over as the most likely suspect. He didn’t return Larry’s calls when he came back because he could not cope with either the guilt or having to pretend to Larry that he was not involved.
    Yes, I agree we are left with the impression that the stepfather killed the girl – his behaviour to her was known in the town but he was never considered a suspect, another way in which the author shows us about that society’s values. Again, it did not matter to me that the identity of the stepfather as killer was not set out in black-and-white proof, I found that rather realistic.
    The bottom line for me was that this book was about drawing you into the characters, mainly of Larry, and showing you the tragedy of his life, yet how he was able to find things to enjoy despite his situation of loneliness due to his ostracism. It was also about the atmosphere and depiction of live in that place at that time. No book is for everyone, of course.

    • Keishon says:

      The bottom line for me was that this book was about drawing you into the characters, mainly of Larry, and showing you the tragedy of his life, yet how he was able to find things to enjoy despite his situation of loneliness due to his ostracism. It was also about the atmosphere and depiction of live in that place at that time. No book is for everyone, of course.

      I agree which is why this story was a problem (LOL) but I totally get it now and I realize my thoughts on my dissatisfaction were not very well thought out. I did have this discussion with a friend. While I can accept that Mississippi was one of the last states still hanging on to racism even during the 70′s, I started to think about why Silas would let Larry participate in this ruse which resulted in his being in trouble with the law. I guess the bottom line for me is that I didn’t agree with Silas’s choices. I am in no way that naive to think that he should have said something at the time of the incident for fear of being lynched, etc, but overall, this storyline just didn’t work for me. I am reading something happy now.

      • Maxine says:

        I think that Silas had a lot of issues- to me it was not relevant that he was black, in the way he handled them & his relationship to Larry. I would like to agree that racism is a thing of the past, but sadly it is not (based on what one sees in the UK and on what one reads about other places in the world).

        • Keishon says:

          No, racism is not a thing of the past here either. I did notice that the author didn’t describe his skin color at all nor make many references to this skin color. The only thing to tell us/remind us that he was black was the racial epithets from other people.

  5. Kailana says:

    I have been really curious about this book since it came out, but haven’t managed to read it yet. I didn’t read all of your review because I didn’t want to ruin anything, but you have my attention!

  6. Darlynne says:

    Keishon, I haven’t read this book and my reasons, after perusing all the reviews and excerpts, were the same as yours for not liking it. That doesn’t mean I’m prescient or a mind-reader, but the very strong vibe I picked up just from the description and brief glimpses told me I would struggle with the story. I, too, cannot tolerate a character being ostracized, racism makes me nuts, and sad is not something I choose willingly. It took me until today, in fact, to even read your review because I did not want to go there. So, thank you, for going on record with your thoughts and inadvertently validating my original reluctance.

  7. Sarah says:

    Keishon – I have finally read the book and am reviewing it today, I had mixed feelings about it. I can’t rave about it but it did leave a strong impression on me and I suspect I will be thinking about it in the future.

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