four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
By: 
Tom Franklin
user_rating: 
0

A-Crooked Letter Crooked LetterFamous for dark and ominous tales of the Deep South, Edgar Award–winning author Tom Franklin, a professor at the University of Mississippi, has published Poachers: Stories (1999), Hell at the Breech (2003), and Smonk (2006). Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, his third novel, takes its name from the children's rhyme for spelling Mississippi: "M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I."

The Story: In the decaying rural backwater of Chabot, Mississippi, self-conscious and withdrawn "Scary Larry" Ott dutifully opens the family business for customers that never come. Twenty-five years earlier, his very first--and only--date ended badly when the teenaged girl vanished without a trace. Although Larry was never charged with the crime, the townspeople, convinced of his guilt, have shunned him ever since. When another young woman disappears and Larry is found unconscious in his home after a bungled suicide attempt, the county sheriff considers the case closed. But local constable Silas Jones is not so sure, and his investigation dredges up the sins and secrets of the past.
William Morrow. 288 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 9780060594664

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"It is satisfying in a way that few crime novels are. The characters are complex, the situation intriguing and thoroughly believable, and the possibilities of mystery as a genre thoroughly exploited." Hallie Ephron

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a compelling blend of past and present, one that takes a little time to gain traction but is worth the wait. ... The resulting novel winds through its path as crookedly as the letters of its title, and arrives at a nicely achieved ending." Robin Vidimos

Northwest Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Though not in essence a mystery or a thriller, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter possesses surprising twists and turns as Franklin reveals more background and history slowly, almost quietly. It's a beautifully written, haunting and at times acutely painful story about race, class and friendship set in a rural Southern town built on the memories of crimes and other abuses of past generations." Michelle Wiener

South MI Sun Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter--part of a saying used to help children spell ‘Mississippi‘--keeps a tight grip on the plot, which moves briskly from the late 1970s to the present. Along the way, Franklin looks at how racism has changed and yet can still simmer below the surface." Oline H. Cogdill

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Franklin is a master of subtle withholding, revealing lines of culpability and sympathy in this small town one crooked letter at a time. ... Franklin first attracted attention as a short story writer, and you can see that skill in this well-crafted tale, which despite all the historical and psychological ground it covers, finishes up in a tight 272 pages." Ron Charles

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The plot is part buddy story, part mystery, part social commentary, all of which don't quite fit together, although Mr. Franklin manages to tie up most of the loose ends before the book is over. ... There are occasional flashes of insight, but for the most part this is a story that's been told too many times before." Robert Croan

Critical Summary

In this haunting and atmospheric Southern gothic, Franklin brings small-town Mississippi to life in sharply focused, spare prose, providing an incisive portrait of a troubled post-segregation Southern community juxtaposed with today's racial realities. Franklin's flawed, but deeply sympathetic, characters propel the story while they reveal, in painful detail, the suffering that otherwise good people can cruelly inflict on one another. Though the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette considered the narrative clichéd, the other critics extolled Franklin's tight, suspenseful plot. Franklin's emphasis on character and psychology over crime may not make for a traditional thriller, but "if you're looking for a smart, thoughtful novel that sinks deep into a Southern hamlet of the American psyche," advises the Washington Post, "Crooked Letter is your next book."