Book review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
by Tom Franklin
Pan Macmillan, 2011 (first published in the USA, 2010)

This is a marvellous book; one that, after you have read it, makes you want to go out and buy multi-copies to give to all your friends for Christmas, and one which inspires the sentiment: “if you only read one novel this year, make it this one”. Since its original publication in the USA, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter has been a bestseller as well as being extremely well reviewed. I hadn’t paid it any attention, though, until it won this year’s CWA Gold Dagger award the day before I spotted a copy in my local library – so I thought I’d give it a try.

The novel is set in rural Mississippi, telling the tale, switching back and forth in time, of two boys – Silas Jones, a baseball player who becomes a poorly paid traffic cop, and Larry Ott, an ostracised countryman and car mechanic. The first chapter pulls the reader in straight away, describing Larry’s lonely lifestyle in his parents’ house; his childhood memories of family tensions; the jobs he’s devised at home and “work”; and his strange welcoming of what seems to be a certain death.

The story unfolds of Larry’s past as he grew up in the impoverished hamlet of Chabot, which boasts a lumber mill and not much else in terms of employment prospects. Larry’s father runs Ottomotive, a car repair shop, but is disappointed in his son’s lack of mechanical ability and treats him as if he’s a wimp because he is always reading (largely horror stories and comics). Larry is very close to his mother, but never manages to make friends at school. His parents have a few hundred acres of land, which do not seem to be used for anything agricultural apart from supporting some chickens. The nearest cabin is owned by Cecil Walker, another drunk who is on permanent disability after a long-ago accident at the mill. He lives there with his quiet wife and her daughter, the sluttish Cindy. This girl vanished when Larry was 16, under circumstances which make everyone in the town convinced Larry must have killed her. They’ve shunned him for 25 years, and he’s had to live with those consequences as well as being shaped by them.

Silas came to Chabot as a young boy when Alice, his mother, had to leave Chicago. He first encounters Larry with his father Carl in the morning on their daily drive to Larry’s school. Carl gives the mother and son a lift, and the two boys eventually become friends – especially when Larry discovers that Silas is living in a run-down old shack at the edge of the Ott property. The boys spend time together in the outdoors, despite Larry’s instinctive knowledge of his parents’ disapproval (he is white; Silas is black – Chabot is, to put it mildly, segregationist), but as they become teenagers their friendship weakens, culminating in Silas leaving town on a baseball scholarship, and eventually to “Ole Miss” (University of Mississippi at Oxford). Years later, having finished his career as “32”, Silas returns to Chabot as a policeman whose main job is to direct traffic twice a day as the workers arrive and leave the mill. When Larry tries to reconnect with his old friend, Silas won’t have anything to do with him.

Matters come to a head when, in the present day, another girl goes missing – not just any girl but the daughter of the family who owns the mill. Everyone leaps to the conclusion that Larry is responsible, though the police can find no evidence nor make him confess.

Although from the account I have just provided, the book sounds like a crime novel, it isn’t. The disappearance of the two girls is not described directly but rather is part of the book’s background canvas. Instead, the author writes about life in all its tiny details in Chabot, in the countryside, the diners and the “trashy” areas; about the people who live there – not just Larry and Silas but their mothers, Larry’s father, Silas’s colleagues and contacts at work – in such brief but telling prose that they all come alive on the page as real characters. The novel is infused with the love of nature, of the snakes and the creepers, the weed-ridden fields and the creeks where people fish, often through Larry’s eyes, as his character gradually unfolds before us. (Later, Silas’s character also unfolds, and he’s a very different proposition.) The extreme poverty in which almost all the characters live is never emphasised, but again, infuses everything in a million subtle ways. Here is a portrait of a community and an atmosphere that is so telling that the reader is there, experiencing it seemingly first-hand. Here are relationships between parents and children, and the lives of those children when they become adults, that are tellingly depicted, with deceptive simplicity yet with great insight.

The “crimes” in the book are incidental – they drive the plot but they aren’t central to what is being told. There is no mystery as such – the two or three revelations or solutions are not surprises as we can see them coming – the interest is not in finding out what happened, or who committed the crimes, but how they happened, which is conveyed in parallel with the slow revelation of the truth of Larry’s and Silas’s secret histories.

I don’t usually like to compare authors to other authors, but this book has more in common with the writings of John Steinbeck, in particular in the depictions of the exuberance of the natural world amid a poor and deprived human society, than it does with a “crime” novel. What’s more, it has the kind of moral heart that is so beautifully conveyed, with all its tragedy, toughness and hope, by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Read other reviews of the novel at: The Washington Post, Mysteries in Paradise, Reactions to Reading, Murder by Type, Spinetingler magazine, Irresistible Targets and Bookreporter.

CWA website: Tom Franklin wins the Gold Dagger.
Harper Collins website: Tom Franklin.
Biography of Tom Franklin.

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21 thoughts on “Book review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

  1. I’m so glad that you, in addition to other bloggers, liked this book so much. I loved it, loaned it to friends, who also loved it. I cried read of Larry Ott’s loneliness and alienation and his waiting for his long-ago friends.
    This book is a tale of the U.S. South, of poverty and racism. It’s a novel about friendship, lost and found. And primarily, I thought it was one more look at the human condition, about the connections among people, and what happens if someone is deprived of them.
    Tom Franklin understands human relations and can describe people’s emotions so well.
    I had been waiting for the book to get an award, as it was nominated for several over here. Finally, it got a good one.
    Yes, a good book to give friends. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in years. Now that
    I read this and Bernadette’s reviews, I want to read it again and will.

    • Thanks, Kathy, I very much agree with your assessment and firmly believe this book is and will continue to be a classic, read by future generations. (It will probably be on the high school reading syllabus before too long!).

  2. So hard to know what to do when a book is much-hyped because it often goes horribly wrong for me (like SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep – meh) but I agree this one is brilliant. I have a hate-hate relationship with John Steinbeck (a story for another day) but I concur with your sentiment that this is a classic kind of story and one that transcends the genre. I have already bought a copy for my sister-in-;law and am sure I’ll be giving away some more copies in the coming months.

    • I was thinking in particular of Cannery Row with its exuberant descriptions of the natural world (the sort of climax of the book, which in itself is a bit of a stream of consciousness). Also Mack and the boys living in their drainpipe….I have not liked all of Steinbeck but Cannery Row is one I love – The Grapes of Wrath/East of Eden I remember enjoying years ago. Don’t know if I still would, though. (I re-read Cannery Row about 3 years ago and still loved it.)

  3. If there was anything I could do over here in the States to get this book on high school curriculums and reading lists, I would.

  4. Maxine – What an excellent review – thanks! You make, I think, such an apt comparison to Steinbeck’s work in the fact that both authors focus on the daily lives of their characters and their interactions, so we see how the bigger social issues affect them as people. And in both cases, the crimes are woven into the fabric of the story without being really its main focus. I, too, am really hoping this novel gets on some syllabi. Hmmm.. something, I think, to suggest to my students.

    • Over here in the UK I am quite surprised at some of the “modern” books on Eng Lit school syllabi, eg Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, etc – I think this one easily holds its own in this company, if not more than holds its own!

  5. Maxine, I sent a message via email to Tom Franklin raving about the book, and mentioned great reviews at Petrona and RTR, and suggesting it be part of a high school curriculum — and that it should be considered a classic.
    I got a note back saying the email had been forwarded to him.

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  9. I have finally got around to reading this book – I loved the writing but was a little disppointed it wasn’t a crime novel as such as you rightly point out in your review. Am going to post a review today.

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