Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is up for this year’s Edgar Award for Best Novel, to be announced April 28, and there’s no doubt it’s a worthy contender. Offering a combined richness in mystery, crime and literary writing, Franklin spins extraordinary storytelling that involves us with the people as much as it does with the questions about what’s going on.
The setting is rural Mississippi in the late 1970s and then 25 years later, with its hot summers, kudzu-covered abandoned homes and uncomfortable moments between whites and blacks. It’s where children spell their state’s name M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.
The crimes play out with intrigue and secrets on several levels, opening with a murdered drug dealer found in an isolated Mississippi creek bed and a teen-aged girl – the daughter of the Rutherford Lumber Mill family — gone missing. At the heart of the story are Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones, the one a mechanic and the son of lower middle class parents and the other the town’s constable and the son of a poor, single black mother. As kids, they shared a brief friendship broken up by betrayal and pettiness. Later, in high school, Larry took his neighbor Cindy Walker on a date, and she was never heard from again. While Larry wasn’t convicted of a crime, he became Scary Larry the rest of his life, suspected of Cindy’s murder. Shortly after the incident, Silas left town to finish high school in Oxford. Now, 25 years later, Silas returns to the area to work on the police force, and everyone believes Larry has something to do with the missing Rutherford girl.
As the pages are turned, the creek murder and the missing Rutherford girl mysteries are solved. Also secrets and betrayals from long ago in Larry and Silas’s lives are revealed. Both are surprised and for us, as readers, there’s more than just relief and satisfaction from the closed loop of questions. This novel is so well written with flawless characters and richly evoked deep south atmosphere I felt like I’d walked through the fields and the kudzu-infested woods with Silas to find the body in the creek, or stood with Silas and Larry as kids playing a game among the thick trees between their houses. I also had a sense of having lived the conscience of Silas and the dumb-luck of Larry and struggling with their moral dilemmas, wondering what I would’ve done in their shoes.