204 of 210 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2010
I have been a fan of Tom Franklin's work since "Poachers," both the work of short fiction and the collection of short fiction that takes its title. Franklin is not a prolific writer, having forsaken quantity for quality, as evidenced by CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER, his third novel in a decade. By virtue of this book alone, it is Franklin who is worthy of newsmagazine cover treatment; Franklin for whom the bookstores should be opening at midnight, with the accompanying lines around the block; and Franklin whose work should be selected for high-profile book clubs. I am seeing some signs that I may not be alone in this opinion. A major bookseller, for example, has just selected CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER as its next "Main Selection." More honors, both critical and commercial, are sure to follow. And it's no wonder. His latest is a born classic.
The novel revolves around two men who were friends for a short but very pivotal time during their childhoods in the late 1970s in the rural South. Larry Ott was the son of white, working-class parents, while Silas "32" Jones was raised in a black, single-parent household, transplanted from urban Chicago to the backwoods of Chabot, Mississippi. Their brief friendship fractured, and Silas went on to become a high school baseball star while Larry was relegated to "weirdo" status as an odd duck. Larry's status went from harmless to dangerous when he picked up a girl for a drive-in movie date, and she was never seen again. While he was not arrested for any crime associated with the girl's disappearance, he was adjudged as guilty in everyone's mind and condemned to lead a solitary existence.
Silas left the area for college and returns after two decades to take a job as Chabot's constable. He goes out of his way to avoid Larry, who has spent the last 20 years running an auto repair shop that sees only the rare customer. When another young woman, the daughter of an important local business magnate, suddenly goes missing, the shadow of suspicion is once again cast upon Larry. Both men have secrets, each different from the other, that must be confronted if mercy is to be given and justice is to be done; and for such to be accomplished, the two will experience damage that neither will walk away from entirely intact. Yet there is the promise that each will emerge from their trials more complete than when they began.
CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER has a mystery at its core, but this is not a mystery or thriller novel. Rather, like all great works, it transcends any particular genre to stand on its own. One of my tests of "great literature" is whether the book in question puts me in the mind of other "classics" without mimicking or modernizing their themes. It meets that mark. One could draw a line beginning with Shakespeare --- OTHELLO specifically --- to A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens through SANCTUARY by William Faulkner, to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee through NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by Cormac McCarthy, and then on to CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER. It is not that Franklin's newest work is specifically like any of these titles. Rather, it is the spirit he evokes through the focused delineation of his characters; the soft comedy and sharp tragedy of his dialogue; the complexity of the plot; and the issues of friendship, love, forgiveness and redemption, of what is owed and what can and cannot be repaid.
And if the journey is masterful, the conclusion is astounding, perfect in its understatement, with sentences, paragraphs and pages you will read over and over again. This is a work for the ages, an example of how the classic novel --- such a rare thing --- is properly written.
--- Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub
163 of 174 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2010
I was hearing such rave reviews of this Tom Franklin novel from friends in the publishing industry that I had to see for myself...and I know the phrase is overused, but I truly "could not put it down". It's both a mystery novel and a story about friendship and growing up in a small town, and Franklin's writing is so visual that you see and hear the characters come to life as you turn the pages - after finishing it, I felt more like I had watched a movie than read a book. I look forward to future novels by this great writer.
90 of 98 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2010
One of the best books I've read in a long time.
It's a thriller -- but not like all the other police procedurals/crime stories you've read. The two main characters are so well described you feel like you've known them all your life. The story starts out fast, solidly capturing your undivided attention -- and it never stops doing so. This is truly a book you don't want to put down.
82 of 92 people found the following review helpful
Brief summary, no spoilers.
This is a story told in chapters that often alternate in time. Our two main protagonists are Larry Ott, a sweet oddball man who was always awkward with his peers and most comfortable reading a novel. Preferably a horror novel, and preferably one by Stephen King.
The other main character is Silas Jones, a black man who is now a policeman in the tiny Mississippi town of Chabot where they both grew up. They were friends as children, or as close as they could be in such a town during the racial tension of decades past.
One day, the incredibly shy and awkward Larry gets asked out on a date by a popular young attractive girl named Cindy. Only Cindy was never seen after their date and suspicion of her murder fell on Larry. There was never enough evidence to prosecute - but in the eye of the town he was guilty both because of the perceived facts of her disappearance and because of his peculiarities and he was ostricized.
The chapters that take place in the present time start off with the disappearance of a young girl named Tina Rutherford, and when Larry Ott is found shot - everyone thinks he killed the girl and then tried to kill himself out of guilt. The truth of course is a lot more twisted and complicated.
In support of the story, I did think the author did a good job of giving us a feel of a very small rural Mississippi town - both from the 1970s and in modern times. This is a moody evocative book, and I did enjoy it.
In critique - I thought the characters were way too stereotypical. Larry was just too good to be real - any injustices he may have suffered felt so manipulative. Other characters and situations were similar, including Larry's devoted mother and cad macho father, the white-trash residents and Silas's sassy CSI girlfriend.
I also thought the denouement was a bit of a letdown - there was no cheating in the sense that there were no last-minute characters brought in - but having any characters acting erratically because they are defined as erratic characters felt like a copout.
Still, despite my criticisms, I still enjoyed reading the story, and I like the sense of foreboding that works so well with that timeline alternating chapter technique. I also liked the character of Silas and would like to read another story about him.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
I can see why a lot of people would rate this as a 5 star book. It has a lot of strong, sometimes intertwining themes about good and evil, racism, parenting, and so forth, and the writing is almost poetic with it's descriptions. The mystery that makes up the majority of the plot in the book is not bad, but a tad bit on the side of being too predictable. Like I said, it could be a five star book for a lot of people, and I can see why it scores so high. I found there to be a few too many faults in it to be really recommendable.
Most notably, I could not stand the way that the story was told, which was done largely in flashbacks, with few clues as to when events which were being described were actually taking place. This made it a little difficult to follow in a number of places, as characters which were supposed to be hospitalized were suddenly talking with satellite dish salesmen, or people who have turned up dead were suddenly out drinking beers with the boys. It's not that you can't figure it out, but the way that these different timelines a strung together is not written all that smoothly. Part of this is based on the description, because there isn't a great sense of when the current events are taking place, and there is little physical description of the characters and the world they're in, but overall, I found this element to be pretty uninspiring.
The other major problem with the book is the characterization of every character other than Silas and Larry. Those are two complex, interesting characters who I enjoy, but everyone around them, from their parents and neighbors to the waitresses in the diners all seem to be stereotypical, one-dimensional characters. Their dialogue is well written, and seems like very natural conversation, but they have no motivation, nothing intelligent to say, and just fall apart. The same is somewhat true of Silas, as well, although he was well defined, I found it difficult to figure out why he was so interested in the mystery when everything he seemed to say and think in the modern voice was so opposed to figuring out the solution.
Maybe the problems I had with this book were due to the fact that I just finished a rather similar book by Jon Clinch called "Kings of the Earth" which was far more interesting and well-written to me, but Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (awful title by the way), was simply not up to par with that, or the five star, "best book of the year" accolades being heaped upon it.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2011
There is a great sense of place and exceptional character development in this mystery. Set in Mississippi, it's a story of prejudice and social inequity. Although the central theme is the mystery of what happened to two missing girls, the heart of the book is the inner struggles of the two main characters, Larry Ott and Silas Jones, who shared a childhood friendship and whose lives went in different directions. Both are well developed and it's the strength and humanness of these characters that defines the book. The author brings you full force into their lives, past and present and in doing so also catapults you into rural small town life. The book smoothly moves between the 1970's and present day and with excellent dialog, alternates between the voice of Larry and Silas. In summary, the book is complex and layered and will appeal to those who like character driven novels.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: A Novel is a brilliantly rendered, highly atmospheric novel which from its first sentence on combines the grip and pace of a police thriller with the depth and nuance of great southern fiction.
I could not put this haunting book down. Tom Franklin has the remarkable ability to understate - to blend suspense with the ordinary, the chilling with the mundane; to expose the reader to all the goodness and fear, tenderness and brutality that his striking characters are capable.
It is a taut and tense examination of the relationship between two men in rural Mississippi, one white, one black; estranged childhood friends, separated in boyhood by tragedy and southern racism; reconnected in adulthood by the same tragedy and more unsettling circumstances.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: A Novel is masterfully written in the tradition of great southern gothic and is absolutely stunning to read. Its metaphors, never over-used or overwrought, are subtle and well-placed in a narrative that moves effectively, back and forth in time, between the minds of its two protagonists, Larry Ott and Silas Jones. Its language is clear and precise, the dialogue authentic and natural. All of the characters are true-to-life and believable... some tender and good, some practical and wise, some ignorant and hateful, some cruel and terrifying.
The result is a reading experience of intense and lasting effect, an effect ranging from admiration and poignancy, to horror and outrage, to pity and fear. It is an emotionally poignant novel not too be forgotten. I loved this book and enthusiastically recommend it with my highest rating.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 2010
Reason for Reading: I love southern fiction and am always intrigued with stories where the past comes back to haunt the lives of those living in the present.
It's the late 1970's, rural Mississippi and white Larry Ott from a lower middle class home and black Silas Jones son of a poor working single mother, make for strange friends. But friends they are, though they have to keep it secret because of their colour, everyone, including their parents would cause a fuss, but as the years go by they drift apart. Silas becomes a jock baseball player eventually moving away to play college baseball. Larry, always a loner, likes horror books and comics, goes out on his first date and the girl disappears forever. No evidence or body is ever found but for the next 25 years Larry is ostracized as the likely killer of the missing girl. Now Silas is back, a constable of a nearby town, and when another girl goes missing all eyes focus once again on Larry.
This is an emotional, poignant story that focuses on many levels. It is a story of a close, bonding, but brief childhood friendship and a story of race relations in a variety of complicated situations. The most profound theme found here though is the burying of deep secrets of the past and leaving them to rot. The harm and destruction they can cause when no one comes forth to tell the truth and the turmoil caused when decades later the secrets are brought forth into the light.
This is a somewhat slow moving story, which centers mostly on the relationship of the two men, the secrets of the past which they each are only partially aware of, and how their lives have been affected. The crime is in the background and keeps the plot moving forward as well as giving cohesion to the meandering narrative which drifts back to the past and forwards to the present. Personally, I didn't find the crime or the secrets very hard to figure out knowing quite early on how things would probably turn out. However, the story is certainly character driven and I highly enjoyed spending time with Larry Ott and Silas Jones, though one more than the other. Somewhat dark emotionally, yet not all doom and gloom, with an ending that may not leave you feeling all fuzzy; I found it a satisfying ending and am enticed to looking into Mr. Franklin's previous novels.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Tom Franklin's "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" has been referred to as a mystery, but it is so much more than that. Set in the southeast corner of Mississippi, land of tiny towns on their way down, and larger towns consisting mostly of churches and strip-malls, Franklin's book goes far past the mystery genre, past the standard "who done it".
Franklin writes of two men in their early 40's who have had a tangled relationship since they first met in their early teens. Silas Jones, is a black policeman, better known by his nickname "32", which he acquired as a top baseball prospect at Ol' Miss. Larry Ott, is a reclusive white man who lives alone, shunned by the townspeople for an unsubstantiated murder charge from his middle teen years. What is the true relationship between the two men?
When another young woman goes missing, the local law enforcement questions Ott, but gets nowhere with the investigation. "Things" occur, life-long held secrets are revealed, and the ending is quite tidy. But its not the book's plot that is the focus of the story, but rather the relationships between the various townspeople and how emotion and friendship and love are conveyed. Not one of the characters is simply drawn; all are complex personalities and are shown in their complexities.
Some reviewers have compared Franklin's work to that of William Faulkner. I have never been able to quite make it though the few Faulkner books I've tried to read, but Franklin's writing is to me far simpler and understandable. That's not to say in any that "Crooked Letter" is a "simple" read. It's not, it's just not as "dense" as I've found Faulkner. (But that's a whole 'nother topic!) Franklin has written a marvelous book here and one well worth recommending.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
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, 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.
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. 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.