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Book Cover Image: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom FranklinTitle: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Author: Tom Franklin

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):

“In the late 1970s, Larry Ott and Silas ’32’ Jones were boyhood pals. Their worlds were as different as night and day: Larry, the child of lower-middle-class white parents, and Silas, the son of a poor, single black mother. Yet for a few months the boys stepped outside of their circumstances and shared a special bond. But then tragedy struck: Larry took a girl on a date to a drive-in movie, and she was never heard from again. She was never found and Larry never confessed, but all eyes rested on him as the culprit. The incident shook the county — and perhaps Silas most of all. His friendship with Larry was broken, and then Silas left town.

More than twenty years have passed. Larry, a mechanic, lives a solitary existence, never able to rise above the whispers of suspicion. Silas has returned as a constable. He and Larry have no reason to cross paths until another girl disappears and Larry is blamed again. And now the two men who once called each other friend are forced to confront the past they’ve buried and ignored for decades.”

Thoughts: Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a fantastic study of friendship in rural Mississippi. In addition, it studies the tensions placed on relationships, no matter where one lives. Black versus white, middle class versus poor, fathers versus sons, opinion versus fact – these elements all combine in a variety of ways that shape Larry’s and Silas’ past and future while allowing the reader to explore the meaning of true friendship.

The first thing that strikes the reader is the miserable existence to which Larry has been relegated. Alone, isolated, and harassed, Larry lives a life that humans, as social beings, are not meant to live. The sympathy generated by this picture of a man who longs for some form of attention only grows as Mr. Franklin takes a journey to the past and shows how Larry ended up as he did, and the reader realizes that Larry was doomed almost from the very first by his interest in anything but what was considered socially acceptable in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Mississippi. As Larry’s innocence is confirmed multiple times, the reader cannot help but champion Larry’s cause, wishing there was some way he or she could help him discover some joy.

Conversely, with Silas, Mr. Franklin does something completely different. Of the two, Silas should be the more sympathetic. A black child growing up dirt poor in Mississippi is not an easy childhood, made worse by his lack of a father. Yet, of the two, Silas is distinctly less sympathetic. Silas made friends easily and had his innate baseball talent that drew positive attention his way. As an adult, his affability, fairness, and deference makes him socially acceptable. Yet, there is something uniquely unsympathetic about his character – a dark shadow that remains unresolved until the very end.

The mystery behind the girls’ disappearance unfolds slowly and delicately, as Mr. Franklin draws out the answers in a way that only builds tension and heightens the reader’s anticipation. The myriad of possibilities, as they are slowly eliminated, only adds to an already complex drama in which a sleepy southern town is is anything but.

In spite of the evil that abounds in this small town, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is really a lovely story, full of heart and more importantly of redemption. The whodunit portion of the story is intense, as any good mystery needs to be. There is nothing outlandish in the plot, and a reader can imagine the story unfolding in any one of the small towns that dot the nation. The crimes themselves are all too familiar and all too common. The realistic nature of Larry and Silas’ relationship, Larry’s isolation, and the crimes against the two women combine to create a story that punches the reader in the gut.

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