Tom Franklin, Crooked, Letter, Crooked Letter (London: Macmillan, 2011 ). A compelling crime novel that explores the far-reaching legacy of an unsolved crime in America’s Deep South 4.5 stars
Opening line: The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a complex, many-layered novel that explores the relationship between an impoverished black boy and awkward white boy in the 1970s, an unsolved crime and the cumulative effect of its poisonous legacy over twenty-five years, and the intricate workings of small-town prejudice.
When Cindy Walker disappears in 1982, suspicion falls on oddball teenager Larry Ott, the last person seen with her at a drive-in movie that fateful night. While nothing is ever proved, the 500 residents of Chabot in Mississippi draw their own conclusions, condemning Larry to a lonely life of almost total social exclusion, waiting for out-of-town customers at the family garage who seldom come. When college student Tina Rutherford goes missing twenty-five years later, negative assumptions are once again swiftly made, placing Larry’s life at risk. It’s up to Silas Jones, who escaped the rural black poverty of Chabot through baseball, but is now back as its sole law enforcement officer, to investigate the truth of what happened to Cindy and Tina. This process is one that will lead him to examine his own uneasy friendship with Larry during their childhood, and to confront the complexities of their unresolved past.
The novel is an extremely well-written and satisfying read, with chapters switching between the present-day investigation and the past, and alternating between Larry’s and Silas’s points of view. Both of these characters are skilfully drawn, as is the setting of Chabot and the steamy landscape of the Deep South (‘he smelled the hot after-rain and listened to the shrieking blue jays, alone at the edge of a wall of woods, miles from anywhere…’). Most impressive, however, is the dissection of the repurcussions that one set of events can have down the years, and the central question the novel poses of how far individuals and communities can make amends for past errors or moral failures.
Of the crime novels I’ve read recently, Crooked Letter forms part of a loose trilogy in my mind with Malla Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die (reviewed here) and Peter May’s The Blackhouse (not yet reviewed). Each has a wonderful sense of place (the Deep South, South Africa and the Isle of Lewis respectively) and successfully depicts small but socially complex communities. While Franklin and Nunn’s novels both explore tensions within racially-divided communities, Franklin and May’s novels can be viewed as coming-of-age stories, whose investigators are forced to re-examine pasts they had long packed away. Of the three novels, Crooked Letter is the one I enjoyed most fully: although the other two were fulfilling reads in a number of respects, they were slightly let down in my view by excessively melodramatic endings.
Further information about Tom Franklin (who was born in small town very much like Chabot) is available here. You can also read the first three chapters of the novel here.
Mrs. Peabody awards Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter a highly satisfying 4.5 stars.
I am so glad you enjoyed this book. What a lovely review: I especially like the comparisons with Malla Nunn and Peter May. I think this is one of the very best “crime” novels I’ve read, though the solution to the crime is far from being the main focus of the book.
Thanks, Maxine. I did enjoy the novel greatly, and can imagine it’s one I’d read again at some point – precisely because it’s about so much more than ‘just’ the solution to the crime. The way all the different strands were woven together was fab, as was the portrayal of the inner lives of Larry and Silas.
It also seems to be a book that everyone loved 🙂
I am the lone dissenter Mrs P. While I thought the book was well written, it didn’t strike a chord with me. Must say that I am not a fan of ostracized characters. My dislike wasn’t well thought out in my review but let’s just say that I didn’t care for the story at all but I do understand why others like it. I thought the story was predictable and unoriginal plot-wise. I just didn’t see anything extraordinary about it. But that’s what makes conversations like these interesting – the differing viewpoints. Excellent review too.
Thanks, Keishon and hooray! Dissent is good! Things would get a little too predictable if everyone loved the same books. I reckon we all have individual reading affinities – we may be drawn to some crime novels rather than others depending on our own mood or preferences.
What I liked in particular about Crooked Letter was the way in which the story was told. I liked the movement between past and present, and the switch between the two main narrative perspectives of Larry and Silas. I thought that was quite complex, and skilfully done.
Any particular favourites on your bookshelf at the moment?
Lovely review of an excellent book.
It’s funny how one’s mind makes connections between books – I have read all three of those you link but would not have thought to link them thematically but now that you’ve done so I can certainly see the commonality. I’ve just finished a book I adored and I too have been thinking of how it reminded me in some way of other books I’ve loved – on the surface perhaps not so similar but I have seen something familiar in them all – of course it’s probably why I’ve liked them all.
Thanks, Bernadette. I probably wouldn’t have made those connections if it hadn’t been for the fact that I read those novels one after the other – a complete coincidence, but a serendipitous one. It was really good to be able to think about them in relation to one another.
The more I think about it, my views of works are probably often shaped by those I’ve read directly before or afterwards. All part of that complex process of evaluating a book…
I loved this book! I recommended it all over the blogosphere, raved about it to friends, loaned it to a friend who gave it to her father; they both gave it high marks.
All that you have said is true about the book. I saw it as a novel of the South, 25 years ago and today, a story about how racism harms human relationships. Iit’s about a friendship lost and found. So much is in this book, in addition to the beautiful prose.
I consider this novel to be one about the human condition.
It should be put in every high school library in the States and part of every syllabus, discussed in classes — writing, sociology, human relations. It should be considered a classic, as To Kill a Mockingbird.
I can’t say enough about this book. Kudos to Tom Franklin.
I hope he writes more terrific novels.
Thanks, Kathy. I absolutely agree with all you say. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of a school text, but yes, I could see it working really well with slightly older teens. There’s so much you could bring out if the text as a teacher to illuminate American history and society, and of course there are those extremely thought-provoking moral and ethical dimensions too.
Thanks Mrs P, this is one I hope to read one day.
You’re welcome, Rhian. I highly recommend.
I am really enjoying Dashiell Hammett right now. I could not get into Raymond Chandler. Maybe I’m not reading the right book with him but Hammett works very well for me. And I am about to try Camilla Lackberg. Have you read her? I see such mixed reviews of her books.
I love those hard-boiled PIs, although I haven’t read any in a while (just dipping into some John Le Carre at the moment).
I’ve read a couple of Lackberg’s novels and quite enjoyed them, though I find the combination of domesticity and quite explicit goriness a little strange. I can understand the mixed responses…
Look forward to hearing what you make of them!
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