Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – Book Review

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.

Highly recommended.

FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

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  1. This sounds fabulous! I can’t wait to read it!

  2. I hate when reviewers say it was predictable because I was totally surprised by the denouement, so I always feel so dense! :–) But that really wasn’t why I loved it anyway, so I guess it’s okay!

    • Gavin on March 5, 2011 at 11:55

    This is the second book that will have me stepping out from the TBR Dare. It is waiting for me at the library. Thanks for the great review.

    • Amy on March 5, 2011 at 12:22

    Several of the themes, racism, domestic violence, in this book speak to me because they are universal and touch most of us at some point in our lives. I am also intrigued by the central idea of people being different for whatever reason because I grew up physically disabled. So stories involving characters who are different intrigue me.
    Your review of this fascinating story hooked me on the book. Thank you!

    • Wendy on March 5, 2011 at 18:00

    Kathy: It is really good – hope you’ll like it as much as I did!

    Jill: LOL! Well, I sometimes don’t see the endings coming either – but I think Franklin gave us some pretty good “hints” along the way. Even still, like you, I liked it more for the literary aspects than the mystery!

    Gavin: I’ll wait to see your review! Hope you love it!

    Amy: You’re welcome! I really found much of the book exploring the idea of people in society who (for whatever reason) are on the “outside.” It is beautifully written. Hope the novel will resonate with you!

    • Flo on March 6, 2011 at 09:26

    And another one on my list ! I read that Dennis Lehane recommended it too and as I love Lehane, well, you’ll be both responsible of my bankrupcy ! 😉

    • Aths on March 6, 2011 at 09:33

    I really can’t wait to read this book!! Great review!

    • Wendy on March 6, 2011 at 09:45

    Flo: LOL! Well, there are worse things than spending all your money on books 🙂

    Aths: you’re welcome – bet you’ll love this one!

  3. I have heard so many good things about this book, and your review makes me want to add it to the ever growing list. It sounds like it’s got atmosphere and a lot of intrigue, and even if it is a little predictable, I imagine that I would probably enjoy it a lot!

  4. I’m glad you wound up enjoying this as much as I did. What a great literary thriller! I hope we see more by Franklin, don’t you? This is definitely a keeper!

  5. I have this on my wish list. I have seen so many great reviews for it. I am not a huge mystery fan but this book really sounds like one I will enjoy. Great review!

    • Wendy on March 7, 2011 at 08:41

    Heather: Knowing your reading tastes, I think you’d like this one 🙂

    Les: I was really pleasantly surprised by this novel – I will definitely read more from Franklin! I am beginning to really appreciate these literary thriller-mysteries 🙂

    Beth: I don’t read a ton of traditional mysteries, but this one is appealing because of the mix of genre. I think you would enjoy it!

  6. I’ve read so many wonderful thoughts and reviews on this one and each time it’s making me want to pick it up as soon as possible. I might have to download this one as well. I don’t normally read a lot of Southern-based fiction, for some ridiculous reason I don’t naturally gravitate to this, but I’m really going to have to make sure I read this one before the year is out. I was on a flight the other day and this woman across the aisle was just engrossed in her copy the entire time.

    • Wendy on March 9, 2011 at 08:40

    Coffee/Book Chick: It is a very engrossing read…hope you’ll love it 🙂

  7. Sometimes, the ‘same old, same old’ themes (such as racial prejudice) make me run, not walk, from a title. Yet, I found this book to be so meaningful in its examination of friendship and family. I come away with far more than a mystery, but instead, a great sympathy for the characters and a sense of relief at the conclusion.

    • Wendy on December 30, 2011 at 11:54

    Bellezza: I totally agree. I love the way Franklin (and also John Hart) weave the literary with the mystery in their books – the mystery is secondary to the character development which is what I enjoy the most. Glad you also loved this one!

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