Author: Tom Franklin
Year of publication: 2010
your brain on books rating: 4
Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones were friends, once upon a time. But racial issues in rural Mississippi during the 1970s complicated their already strained friendship, so the two boys grew apart and grew up. While Jones became a popular jock on the baseball team, Ott struggled to find a group of his own. Then a local girl vanished when she was supposed to be at the drive-in with Ott, and he was never able to shake off the fingers that pointed in his direction.
Decades later, Jones is the town constable, and Ott is nearly a shut-in, only leaving his home and his beloved horror novels to work at his auto-repair shop where he never has any customers unless an out-of-towner who doesn’t know him happens to have some car trouble while passing through. Ott learns to accept his alienation and his empty hours, but he finds himself thrown back into the spotlight when another girl goes missing and the rumors from his past make him the most likely suspect. Now it’s up to Jones to separate the facts from the speculation, bringing him face-to-face with the man who was his best friend when he himself had nothing.
If readers weren’t already aware that Franklin’s novel is set in the South, it shouldn’t take them more than a chapter to figure it out; the narration of the story has a very relaxed pace – slow, but not so much as to be debilitating. This pace assists the storytelling in two ways: 1) by making more authentic the experience of being in small-town Mississippi, and 2) by reinforcing the idea that things in some areas of the South don’t change quickly. In this case, that slow-changing atmosphere includes people’s impressions of each other, and Ott’s pain is apparent because of it. Just by browsing the back cover copy, readers will get the feeling that Ott may not be guilty of the crime of which others have accused him, so slow-moving decades of forced isolation make it easy to empathize with the poor, lonely bookworm. Just go ahead and call him “Boo Radley.”
With readers already on Ott’s side, there’s one thing more pressing than the anguish over Ott spending all those lazy, hazy, crazy days of every single summer all by his lonesome: if Ott isn’t a murderer (and throughout the novel, however innocent Ott might seem, that’s still an “if”), who is? Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is primarily a whodunit mystery, but the work’s greatest strength is the fact that the interpersonal relationships will become as important to readers as the anticipation of learning the killer’s identity. Franklin works with a small cast of characters, which allows him to fully develop the relationships between each protagonist and the secondary characters that surround them, both during the 1970s and the story’s present. Readers will have to juggle their feelings about Jones and Ott’s former friendship and actions since, all while trying to label one of the small town’s inhabitants a cold-blooded killer. The fact that the townspeople are quick to blame Ott just adds another layer to an already captivating story – because guilt is assigned before the police even begin to collect evidence for the latest crime, readers will have an emotional investment in the outcome, not just a passive interest.
If there is one thing to say about Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, let it be this: there are good books that are plot-driven, and there are good books that are character-driven, but great books strike a balance between both elements. Franklin has found that balance, and thus told a great story.