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Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

August 6, 2014


Mississippi. A long, tangled, repetitive jumble of letters. “Crooked letter, crooked letter” is an allusion to a mnemonic that southern kids learn to help remember how to spell Mississippi. But Mississippi isn’t just the setting; it’s an apt metaphor for the plot, with its crookedness and switchbacks and echoes of the past. A plot that starts with this gripping first line: “The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.”

So begins the story of Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones, a story spanning 20 years in the small town of Chabot, Mississippi. As young boys, they were two different types of outcast—Silas because he’s black and Larry because he’s what people call “curious.” A weirdo. Into horror novels, particularly Stephen King (the opening line could be straight from a King novel). But everyone considered Larry harmless. Until one day when he mustered the courage to ask a girl on a date and the girl was never seen again. No body was ever found, so Larry was never charged with a crime, but he was presumed by most all to have murdered the girl.

Now, 20 years later, it seems “Scary Larry,” the recluse who lives in a house full of horror novels and runs an inherited auto shop that never has visitors, may be at it again. Suspicions of the old murder pile up as evidence of a new crime. And the only person who seems at all willing to give Larry a chance is his old friend 32 Jones, now the constable in the town. Silas has plenty of reasons to keep at arm’s length of his old friend, but a nagging moral obligation compels him to get involved in the case.

It’s hard to say more about the plot without ruining it. Much of the fun is how the layers of story—both present and past—unravel simultaneously so we not only get the picture of what’s happening now but also the backstory, building the present’s significance.

I’ve heard only one dig at this book—that there are a few very heavy-handed lines in it. I didn’t notice them until they were pointed out to me. To the contrary, Franklin’s writing is solid and textured, and the plot is so strong that I’m willing to forgive a misstep or two. Like Nick Pizzolatto’s work (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is part of my True Detective-inspired southern crime fiction tour), the heart of this story isn’t even the plot. It’s not the crime. It’s the relationships between the characters. And even more so, it’s the themes of friendship, race, prejudice of all kinds, and the way a moment in the past can haunt for a lifetime that make this not just an enjoyable read, but a powerful novel.

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