Tom Franklin’s (to me) oddly and emphatically titled Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a reference to the way children in the South are taught to spell Mississippi. Who knew? As many summers as I spent in Alabama, the subject never came up, but after reading the novel, I can see why it is titled as such. The back roads, farms, swamps and landscapes of Mississippi play almost as big a role as the main characters in this atmospheric and suspense filled novel about two boys whose fleeting friendship drastically alters the course of their lives.
Larry Ott and Silas Jones become secret friends after Silas and his mother move to an abandoned cabin on Larry’s father’s land in small town Mississippi. Always an introspective child, Larry has prayed for a friend all his life, but when a neighbor girl goes missing after a date with Larry, the boys part ways and lead drastically different lives until another missing girl casts suspicion on Larry all over again.
Some books should come with a warning that they are about to disrupt your life, as surely I had to make several concessions in mine while reading this book. Right from the very beginning I was sucked into Larry’s solitary life – going to work every day, reading books through the day and night, still suffering the ostracism that the town has imposed over the girl who went missing after a date with him over twenty-five years ago. Franklin doesn’t wait to get the story moving along and I was on pins and needles trying to figure out if Larry has committed the crime of which he has always been suspected, and how that is going to affect his life now that another young woman is missing. Silas’s life is hardly all that he imagined it to be, but he has nonetheless managed to carve out a comfortable, if not luxurious, life as a constable of the tiny town with a girlfriend who is building a career as a paramedic.
I loved seeing the relationships that Silas had with members of the town and the unique role that he played in a community where the mayor doubled as traffic control if he wasn’t around to cover the shift. While Larry’s story is primarily explored by delving into the past, and Silas’s is unfolding in the present, the novel is finely paced and I remained interested in both narratives as they were weaving themselves together, leading to the conclusion of this page turner of a novel. The intimate, finely observed details of small town places and faces, complex racial tensions, ambiguous protagonists, and a looming mystery are what made this a tense and gripping, yet comforting read.