When she was awake, the senile, skeletal black lady in the bed beside Ina would watch him with eyes narrowed by suspicion, but not because of Larry’s past, he figured, but his skin color, a woman close to ninety whose family had left her here, and Larry would wonder how many wrongs she’d endured from white people in her almost-century of living. Sometimes he thought of Alice Jones, of Silas, how Larry’s mother had given them coats but not a ride in her car. How what seemed liked kindness could be the opposite. – from Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, page 181 –
Larry Ott has lived his whole life in a small town in Mississippi. Different from other boys, quiet, and a bookworm, he doesn’t make friends easily. So when Silas, a black boy, and his single mother move onto the Ott’s land into a tumble down cabin, Larry cautiously extends a hand in friendship. The two boys connect almost instantly, but hide their friendship from people who might not approve of it – especially Larry’s abusive, alcoholic father. Then the unthinkable happens. Larry takes the beautiful and worldly Cindy Walker on a first date to the drive-in, and the girl is never seen again. Suspicion that Larry is responsible for her disappearance follows him from that day forward, and his only friend moves away leaving Larry alone once again.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter opens twenty-five years after Cindy’s disappearance. Another local girl has gone missing and once again, the accusatory eyes of the town have fallen onto Larry. Silas has returned, working as a constable, and avoiding Larry while quietly doing his job. Old secrets are surfacing which will bring the two men back together again and may hold the key to the mystery of both missing women.
Tom Franklin’s Edgar Award nominated novel is both literary and mystery – a novel which takes the reader deeply into the South where racism infiltrates everything. Atmospheric and firmly anchored in place, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter moves back and forth from the mid-70s to the present, gradually revealing the characters and uncovering their secrets.
Larry Ott is a sympathetic character – a man who has been ostracized and rejected his whole life, but who has maintained his gentle nature and humanity through it all. Larry, it seems, symbolizes all those bullied children who only wish for one friend in a world which seems against them.
I sped through this novel which is somewhat predictable, and yet still manages to be wholly satisfying. The relationship between Silas and Larry is complex and takes center stage; the mystery seems almost secondary to the real story about two men, one black and one white, who share secrets and a past which informs their whole lives.
Themes of the book include bullying, racism, and domestic violence. Readers should be warned, some of the language in the book is harsh and Franklin does not spare the reader the ugliness of racism. Despite this, the imagery and language never feel gratuitous because the idea of being different (whether it be due to skin color or something less tangible) is a strong concept in the novel. Larry is viewed as “scary” and strange because he is a bit of a recluse and prefers his books to socializing; Silas’s skin color keeps him in a less than responsible position on the police force.
Tom Franklin’s novel reminds me of another author whose work I have enjoyed: John Hart. Both men set their stories in the South and create damaged characters who are not well-accepted in society. Both authors weave the literary genre tightly together with mystery-suspense.
Readers who love both literary and mystery, will undoubtedly want to pick up a copy of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.
FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.
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