I’ve always been rather anti-American in my fiction tastes. Apart from a select few authors (Ellery Queen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Donna Tartt and, more recently, Lauren Oliver), novels set in America have never really appealed to me. I have no idea why, because I read plenty of books which aren’t English, and my Scandinavian crime section is getting a little out of hand, but put a Raymond Chandler in front of me and I’ll probably fall asleep. However, I had heard such good things about Tom Franklin’s latest, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, that I had to give it a try. I’m so glad that I did, as it was totally brilliant.
Ostensibly a crime novel, Franklin has written a book which explores the tangled mess which arises from half-truths and concealed lies. Set in 1980s and modern-day Mississippi, it is the story of Larry Ott, a white boy who hides from his drunken father in world of horror books, and Silas Jones, a black boy who lives with his single mother in a shack on Larry’s family’s property. The boys become friends, meeting in secret, but before long their friendship is torn apart, and Silas moves away. Later on, Larry’s life is destroyed when he is accused of killing Cindy, his neighbour, with whom he’d been on one date. Although nothing was proven, he became a recluse, known around town as Scary Larry. When another girl goes missing in the town, twenty years later, Larry is the obvious suspect and Silas, as the town’s police officer, is part of the investigating team.
What follows is a story of discovery, both in terms of the crime(s) and in terms of the characters and their motivations. Larry is initially a pathetic character, but as the novel goes on, and flashbacks to his adolescence reveal his treatment at the hands of his father, he becomes more sympathetic. Despite some of his actions, he is hard to completely dislike and by the end of the novel I was cheered by the amount of dignity that he had gained. Silas is actually harder to warm to although, as with Larry, Franklin has managed to create a complicated and nuanced character who is difficult to pigeon-hole as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The relationship between the two men complex, made more so by the crime that stands between them, both personally and professionally.
The novel is a bit of a slow-burner, taking a little time to get into, but by about the fourth chapter I couldn’t put it down. Surprisingly for a relatively bleak novel, the ending is hopeful and definitely made me smile. Highly recommended, especially for someone who loves crime fiction but wants something a little more character-oriented.