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