Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Review of "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" [82]

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
William Morrow, ISBN 978-0060594664
288 pages, October 5, 2010

"The Rutherford Girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house."
Some 25 years ago, in the late 1970's, in rural Mississippi, the fact that Silas Jones and Larry Ott were friends was not something most people would have understood. That is if they had known about it, which they didn't, because the boys kept it a secret. Silas is the black son of a very poor single mother, the two of them barely surviving, living in a abandoned hunter's cabin with no electricity or running water. Larry, on the other hand, is the son of a white working class family, his father a popular mechanic in town, who actually owns hundreds of wooded acres, including the land where the cabin is.

But things are not always as they first seem and things don't always turn out like you might expect.
Silas, while poor, is popular in school, wins a baseball scholarship to college and returns to town some twenty years later to take a job as the local constable. It is a job paid for by the mill company that is the area's largest employer and that now owns most of the surrounding land. The mill owner is also the father of the missing girl, the Rutherford Girl, who set out to return to college more than a week ago and was never seen again.

Larry's life, on the other hand, took a far different course. A loner, consider rather strange for, among other things, his love of reading, he had never had any friends in school. Except, for that brief time, Silas. And then things get much worse for Larry.
When he was still in high school, a girl he had taken to a drive-in movie, his first date ever, was never seen again. They never found a body and there was no proof to charge him, but everyone thought he had killed the girl and they still think so today. He lives alone in the house he grew up in, no friends, no visitors. He runs the garage his father had owned, opening it every day, even though he never has any customers. His only source of income has been selling off to the mill the land his father once owned.
Now, when all these years later, a second girl goes missing, he is the first suspect in everyone's mind.
His old friend Silas may be the only one interested in finding out the truth.
If he can get over the secrets and lies in his own past.

I find this a rather hard book to categorize...perhaps I would call it a literary mystery woven through with a healthy dash of Southern Gothic. That sense of the south is as pervasive in the story as the kudzu that seems to swallow the landscape, as dangerous as the many snakes that slither through this story. But as central as the mystery, or rather the mysteries, of the missing girls are, the book is really about the characters. Larry and Silas are at the very center, but they are surrounded by a unforgettable crowd, in the present day and reaching back to the parts of the story told from decades ago. It is about friendship and family, cruelty and crushing loneliness, race and redemption. It is disturbing and heartbreaking sad and yet, ultimately, hopeful. 

The dialogue is excellent, the author's ear for the rhythm of southern speech feeling perfect. The story is very good, even if I must admit that for me it lagged a bit in the middle. But from there it raced to the conclusion, part of which I foresaw and part of which was a total surprise. I think it is a book whose story and characters will stick with you long after you finish the last page and close the cover.

By the way, if you too somehow miss the opening page as I did, and wonder where the title comes from, it is from the little saying that school children used to remember how to spell the state's name...
"M,I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I."
Although there are a few more crooked things in this story than a few letters.

My thanks to Library Things Early Reviewers for a copy of this book.


  1. Occasionally I read a book about which I am so unabashedly enthusiastic that it's as though folks reviewing it are reviewing my child or something. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is this book for me right now, and I am just thrilled that you enjoyed it so.

    Those of us who know him and have followed him since the days of "Poachers" are so excited for him that this might be the book that brings him a wider audience.

  2. This one is one that has received high praises. Sounds great Caite.

  3. Excellent review as always, Caite. I'm glad you explained where the title came from. Sounds like this one should be on my list soon.

    Have a good week!

  4. This book was featured at SIBA, and I don't know how I managed to walk out of there without this book. So anyway, I did add it to my Amazon wish list in time for the holidays! To me there is nothing better than a southern mystery.

  5. I didn't know how to characterize it either, but I loved it!!!

  6. People are seeming to really like this one.

    I personally think that it is just as easy to spell Mississippi without the crooked letter bit.

  7. I am such a bad speller, I need all the help I can get, crooked letters and all.

  8. I can't wait to read this book! It sounds right up my alley!

  9. wow, sounds great. i've heard a lot of wonderful praise for this novel and i know i'll have to read it sooner or later.

  10. I actually remember my dad teaching me how to spell Mississippi this way :)

    Based on your review, I am certain that this is a book that I would greatly enjoy!

  11. Glad you enjoyed it overall. I really liked it too!


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