Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter won the 2011 CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Novel of the Year back in 2011 and it is easy to see why. Ostensibly, a dual timeline crime narrative featuring two lost girls twenty-five years apart, the novel is a melancholic and beautifully written exploration of friendship, loneliness, race and guilt that is a subtle as it is moving.
Growing up in rural Mississippi in the late 1970’s, Larry Ott is an awkward white boy with a domineering father, no friends and only his Stephen King novels for company. One day, while his father is driving him to school, they unexpectedly give a lift to Silas Jones and his mother and the boys become tentative friends. For a time, life is normal for the boys – one white, one black – but their friendship is torn apart by issues of race and the mysterious disappearance of a girl who was last seen on a date with Larry. Despite protesting his innocence and never being charged with a crime, Larry is shunned by the town, nicknamed ‘Scary Larry’ and never given a moment’s peace thereafter.
In the present day Silas Jones is now the town constable, tasked with unsatisfying duties like traffic management and removing snakes from mailboxes. However, when the daughter of a wealthy mill owner goes missing and Larry Ott is once again the prime suspect, Jones must face up to his past. He has avoided Larry for years; but when someone takes premature revenge on the accused man, Jones must decide whether to reveal his past history with Larry, or let him take the blame for not one, but two murders.
Often novels that rely on flashbacks can be clunky, but Franklin has a light touch and moves seamlessly from past to present, drip-feeding information to keep his narrative tight and taut. Dialogue and characterisation is strong and he presents his characters with a faithfulness and an attention to detail which make it impossible not to care about their fates. The plot may contain the expected hooks of the genre, but Franklin also manages to subvert the genre by making the reader care as much about the ‘who’ as the ‘what’. Investment in the plot is soon supplanted by investment in the people.
As well as creating intimate portraits of his characters, Franklin evokes a wonderful sense of place, depicting Mississippi with a clear-eye and a sharp attention to detail, using the question of race in unexpected ways and creating an intimacy through literary economy.
He looked out across the field. He seemed to have forgotten where he was, and for a while Larry rocked, bats fluttering over his view and crickets chirping in the monkey grass along the edge of the porch and his mother’s wind chime jingling, delicate notes too tender to be metal, more like soft bone on wire; he’d always thought the chime sounded like a skeleton playing a guitar, and for a time they sat together on the porch and watched the sun scald the sky red and the trees black.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is elevated above your usual crime fiction because it is, at its heart, a moving examination of loneliness. Larry Ott is ostracised, bullied and victimised, but it is his yearning for human connection gives the novel a beating heart.
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