Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin

crookedletterTitle: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Author: Franklin, Tom (Author’s Website)

Genre: Mystery, Psychological Suspense, Southern Gothic

Bibliographic: Harper Collins, 304 pages, Hardcover List Price $24.99, Paperback List Price $14.99, Audiobook CD List Price $29.95, ISBNs 9780060594664, 9780060594671, 9781410435019, 9780062048745

Publication Date: October 5, 2010

Rating: ★★★★☆/♥♥♥♡♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Atmospheric, moody, stylistically complex

Why I picked it up: A podcast I listen to described it as being very well-written, with imagery evocative enough that the setting — rural Mississippi — almost became another character.

S.I.A.S.: Larry Ott always claimed he didn’t murder that missing girl, but now someone else has disappeared.

Summary:  When he was in high school, Larry Ott went on his first and only date ever with Cindy Walker, the girl next door — and Cindy  never came home. He never confessed to any crime relating to her disappearance, and no body was ever found, but most of the residents of Chabot, Mississippi know that “Scary Larry” raped and murdered her, despite his claims that he didn’t. After school, Larry spent some time in the army, where he was taught to fix cars — a skill he brings back to Chabot after he is discharged, setting up in his father’s auto-repair shop. For years he has no friends (except a young man named Wallace Stringfellow, whose interest in Larry is deeply tied to his infamy), no family except for his mother (who has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a nursing home), and no customers.

Silas “32” Jones moved to Chabot from Chicago as a high school student, and he and his mother set up shop in a tiny cabin on the edge of the Ott family’s land. Silas and Larry are secret friends for awhile, although they don’t acknowledge each other at school or in any other public setting. After they have a falling-out (and after certain other things happen, which I won’t spoil), Silas moves to Oxford, Mississippi to attend school. Now, years later, Silas has moved back to Chabot and been elected town constable. He has friends, a girlfriend, and a good life. He hasn’t spoken to Larry since his return, even though Larry’s phoned several times.

The plot kicks off with the disappearance of another local girl, which all of Chabot (except for Silas) assumes Larry was the cause of — Larry is having difficulty defending himself against allegations of his involvement, because he’s been shot in the chest by a home intruder wearing Larry’s old Halloween mask. As Larry languishes in the hospital, Silas tries to prove that Larry is not connected to either disappearance, while also investigating a case where someone put a rattlesnake in a mailbox.

It turns out that Silas knows something about Cindy’s disappearance, something which has him convinced that Larry is innocent. As the novel continues, you do find out what happened to Tina Rutherford (the second missing girl) — but you never get a firm answer on the first disappearance.

Evaluation: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is extremely well-written, almost the the point where I hesitate in calling it genre fiction. The language is beautiful. Several times while reading this book, I found myself stopping to admire a particularly well-crafted sentence, and more than once I read a section out loud to my husband, just because of how pretty the language is. That said, this book is unmistakably a mystery; it was nominated for the Edgar Award, and if it’s mysterious enough for the Mystery Writers of America that’s good enough for me.

The plot was slow in a way that was appropriate to the setting. With some mystery novels the reader is compelled to keep turning pages and the book is meant to be read quickly — this isn’t like that at all, but it works. The mood is evocative of the book’s setting: it is slow, it is languid, it reveals itself in its own time. The one thing I didn’t like about the book was that it sometimes went a little too far the other way. I enjoyed the book very much while I was actually reading it, but when I put it down I didn’t feel any urgency to pick it up again.

Even the minor characters were three-dimensional, with only a few exceptions. Larry’s father is viewed primarily through Larry’s eyes as a child, and so he’s somewhat larger-than-life.  Silas is also well-done. The author gave an interview where he mentioned that he, as a white man, was nervous about writing from Silas’s point of view, and the author’s care really shows. He is far from a caricature or stereotype.

I think this book will be popular with mystery fans, and may be a good gateway book for people who like mysteries and also want to read “literature.” I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who likes their mysteries cozy — there is only a little bit of violence, but there is one very graphic description of a decaying body and a dog dies (while attacking a human character).

Significance: This book has been nominated for a slew of awards, and is fairly universally recognized as a “good” book. The descriptions of the setting are powerful. While racism isn’t a central theme of the book, it does receive quite a bit of treatment in a very thoughtful way.

Readalikes: In Bitter Chill, by Sarah Ward. Memory Man, by David Baldacci. Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Were you familiar with the origin of the phrase “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter”? Why do you suppose the author chose to title the book this?
  2. Why do you think Larry stayed in Chabot?
  3. How do Larry’s and Silas’s relationships with their respective mothers shape the course of events in the book? What about Silas’s relationship with Mrs. Ott? Why does he continue to visit her in the nursing home?
  4. What do you think happened to Cindy? Do you agree with Larry and Silas’s suspicions?
  5. Why did Silas wait so long to tell what he knew? How would Larry’s life have been different if he hadn’t? How would Silas’s?

Lists and Awards: ALA Notable Books — Fiction 2011; Dagger Awards: CWA Gold Dagger; Los Angeles Times Book Prizes: Mystery or Thriller; Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award — Best Mystery & Suspense: 2010; Barry Award Nominee for Best Novel (2011); Anthony Award Nominee for Best Novel (2011); Hammett Prize Nominee (2010); Edgar Award Nominee for Best Novel (2011); Alabama Author Award — Fiction (2011).

Professional Reviews: Kirkus. Publishers Weekly. Washington Post. Paste Magazine. Southern Literary Review.

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