This is a trully wonderful novel. I have waited a year to get hold of a copy from the library, ever since the book won the coveted Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger award last year. From this you will gather that Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a crime novel. Which is only partly true. This is much, much more than a good crime mystery. For me the crime solving is the least important and least interesting part of the novel. For a start there is little in the way of detective work and what does take place is pretty mundane. There is no great detective at work here, nor is there really any hero.
The novel is set in rural south eastern Mississippi, a very sparsely populated and relatively deprived part of that state. The action covers the period from the late 1970s to more or less the present day. What makes this novel such a joy and fascination to read is that it brings to life in a realistic and deeply felt way the racial tensions and the resulting ambiguities and lies which caused so much damage to relationships in that part of the world.
The disappearance of two young white girls, 25 years apart provides the frame for the novel. By the end both mysteries have been solved. But, as I mentioned above, this is not what the novel is mainly about. Rather the pulsating heart of the novel is the now broken relationship between two young boys – Silas and Larry. Silas is the only child of a very poor black single mother, while Larry is the only son of a quite prosperous white family. Despite this the two boys become close friends. But Silas left when still a teenager and by the time the novel begins has long since returned to Amos, the little town in the area, as a police constable, the lowest rung on the ladder. Larry on the other hand never left the place, but his life was more or less ruined when he was accused of the kidnap and presumed murder of a young white girl some 25 years earlier. Nothing could be proved, but he was tainted and ostracised. Silas left Amos shortly after and the two have never spoken to each other since. Now, another young white girl has gone missing and again suspicion falls on Larry.
This time around though, Larry is found nearly dead after a shooting, which the police take as a suicide attempt and therefore proof of Larry’s guilt. However Silas is not convinced of this. And as he begins to prod around a bit the true history of Silas and Larry gradually emerges through a series of reminiscences by the two characters. This gets us into the minds and lives of people in rural Mississippi in the 1970’s and 1980’s and is a harrowing tale of racial hatred, violence, loneliness, friendship, misunderstandings, lies and deceptions. These flashbacks eventually end with a shocking revelation. Despite this “bad thing” the novel is not really one of despair, but rather the healing powers of confronting one’s demons and facing up to the truth. The mysteries of the missing girls is finally solved and life goes on.
This is first book by Tom Franklin I have come across. He has written three other books, which I will now try and obtain. Franklin himself comes from the deep South, the state of Alabama. The title of the novel is explained at the beginning of the book and comes from the way southern children are taught to spell Mississippi – M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.