Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

I read Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter in July and it remained with me all summer long.  Now, as the weather turns, Franklin’s well-crafted dialog continues to wander through my head. When I opened to the first chapter and landed smack in the middle of a horrific day in the haunted life of Larry Ott, recluse by necessity and perennial murder suspect, I knew this was one of those rare and tenacious tales.

Once Franklin begins to weave Larry’s back story we are pulled into a childhood scarred by loneliness.  The novel alternates between the past and present for two-thirds of the way, building character and suspense.  This is the best that mystery writing gets and though you will be turning the pages with white-knuckles, eager for plot resolution, you need to be prepared to have characters, particularly Larry, take up permanent residence in your head.  I realized later that the story kept me reading so swiftly that I wasn’t drinking in enough of the character development or the beauty of the prose.

Franklin uses his gift for language to evoke the hot, rattlesnake-ridden town of Chabot, Mississippi where no one can forget Cindy Walker’s disappearance twenty-five years before and the shadow it cast over Larry, the person who took her out on a date the night she vanished.  Silas “32” Jones, the former high school baseball star, has been back in town for two years serving as constable when another young woman goes missing, casting suspicion on Larry again and unearthing the twisted and heart-rending past the two men share. Larry is white, Silas is black and long before Cindy Walker disappeared, the two men shared a few tenuous months of friendship, fraught with the risks of crossing racial and class lines.

Though I could not put this book down I also found much of it painful to read.  The depictions of emotional cruelty perpetrated by children, teenagers and adults and the violent musings of one character in particular will be too much, perhaps, for some readers.  I lead a seniors book group and the women are sophisticated readers who don’t seem to balk at much.  But as our first meeting of the fall approached, I had a twinge of regret regarding this selection.  However, as I was reminded when we gathered, these are the same women who devour Stieg Larsson, an author who doesn’t shrink from graphic and ghoulish detail; it was only I who was disturbed by this selection.  But where Larsson’s clinical and exhaustive depictions of sadism can get under your skin and make it crawl, that is often as deep as he goes – at least for me.  Franklin gets to your heart with his remarkable prose and well-wrought characters.

Nancy Pearl’s famous four appeals seldom coalesce in one book but they seem to do so here:  story, character, setting and language.  It takes a remarkable writer to do all that while pacing a story just so; I experienced a mounting dread akin to what I felt with Dennis Lehane’s  Mystic River.  I don’t want to overplay that comparison here because Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter does offer some redemption.  Yes, this is a story about isolation, cowardice, cruelty and destructive secrets.  But though the past can’t be undone, the broken gift of a little hope and consolation is held out at the end for the characters and the reader.

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About the Author:

MaryKate Perry lives, writes, and bakes in Olympia, Washington. See her at www.marycakeblog.wordpress.com.

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