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Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: A Novel Hardcover – October 5, 2010
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Edgar Award-winning author Tom Franklin returns with his most accomplished and resonant novel so far—an atmospheric drama set in rural Mississippi. 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. A Q&A with Author Tom Franklin
Q: Tell us a bit about your latest book Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. How did you come up with the title?
Franklin: Title's a pneumonic device used to teach children (mostly southern children) how to spell Mississippi. M, I, crooked-letter, crooked-letter, I, crooked-letter, crooked-letter, I, humpback, humback, I.
Q: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a bit of a departure from your previous two novels—Smonk and Hell at the Breech—in that it is set in contemporary times and the story line is a bit less dark. What inspired the premise for this novel and the departure from a more historical setting?
Franklin: I'd been wanting to write about a small town police officer, and I'd long had the image of a loner mechanic in my mind. When I put the two together, the story began to form. I used a lot of autobiographical stuff for Larry, the mechanic.
Q: A review in USA Today (for Hell at the Breech) stated that, “he also makes his characters rise up from the pages as if they were there with you.” …and this is certainly true in your latest novel. How do you approach the task of developing your characters and bringing them to life? Are the characters in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter based on anyone in particular?
Franklin: They're both a combination of different facets of different people, a conglomeration of fact and fiction. I usually try to just let them begin to do what they want to do, just put them in a situation and see what they do. When they begin to surprise me, do things I hadn't anticipated, that's when it's working.
But the character of Silas "32" Jones is very loosely based on the sole police officer of the hamlet of Dickinson, Alabama, where I grew up. This guy was actually the law in a nearby mill town, and my hamlet of Dickinson fell in his tiny jurisdiction. I've always loved the idea of small town cops, especially one who might be a kind of underdog to the police forces of nearby larger towns.
Q: In Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter your two main characters are anything but stereotypical—the young black boy goes off to college to play baseball and comes back to be the town constable and the young white boy is the accused murderer and the town outcast. What, if anything, prompted you to portray these characters this way?
Franklin: No real person is a stereotype, and I try to make my characters as real as I can. We're all a mess of contradictions and secrets, strangenesses and desires, and nobody's all good or all bad. We're all somewhere in the spectrum between absolute good and absolute evil. So I just try to find a character who's fairly normal, and put him or her in a fix and see how he or she negotiates it to see, as Kurt Vonnegut says, what he or she is made of. In this case, the story as I came to understand it called for Larry to stay home and Silas to leave. If it had been the other way around, I'd still work to make the characters unstereotypical.
Q: Without giving away too much of the story, what is one thing (emotion, thought) that readers can expect to walk away with after reading this book?
Franklin: It's a sad book, but it's full of hope. Hope is what I want a reader to leave with.
Q: Historically the South has not always had a positive image in other parts of the country. How has your experience growing up and living in the rural South shaped your talent as a writer? And have you ever felt the need to justify or redeem the South’s past in any of your works?
Franklin: I think growing up in the south made me the person I am, and the writer I am comes from that. So, yes, the south's made me the writer I am. It taught me to listen to the cadences and rhythms of speech, and to notice the landscape. It also has this defeated feel, a lingering of old sin, that makes it sweet in a rotting kind of way. Much of it is poor, much is rural, and that's an interesting combination, a deep well for stories.
Q: Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer? Who are some writers, past and present, that you admire or have inspired you?
Franklin: I always knew I wanted to tell stories, one way or another. If I'd had a video camera in the mid 1970s I'm sure I'd be a filmmaker now. But I just had a portable typewriter, and so the stories I could tell were ones on paper.
Q: You are one of the most celebrated writers in the field, and have been compared to the likes of Harper Lee, William Faulkner, and Elmore Leonard. What do you believe is the one thing that sets you apart from other contemporary writers in your genre?
Franklin: What sets me apart? I honestly don't know that I’m more "apart" from other writers of my generation. Landscape plays a large role in what I write, but that's true of many other writers. My stuff is set in the south, but that's true of others as well. I don't know, honestly.
Q: As a professor of English, what is one piece of advice that you would share with aspiring writers?
Franklin: Read, starting with the classics. Read all the time. If you don't read, you won't ever be a writer. Also, write. This seems obvious, but it's amazing how many "writers" don't write very much.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
- ASIN : 0060594667
- Publisher : William Morrow (October 5, 2010)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 274 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780060594664
- ISBN-13 : 978-0060594664
- Item Weight : 15.7 ounces
- Dimensions : 0.75 x 6 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #743,546 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones, one white and the other black, grow up in lower east Mississippi, becoming friends as young boys in spite of every societal barrier preventing it. Developing a natural affinity, their relationship is nonetheless torn apart by the ever abhorrent racism that is sadly part of the culture of that area and of those times. Silas turns to baseball where he has University level talent while Larry remains at home, an introspective, reading type who has few friends.
One evening while Larry and Silas are both in high school, Larry is curiously asked by his neighbor, the attractive Cindy Walker, for a date at the local drive-in. One thing leads to another and Cindy is never seen again, leaving Larry as the obvious suspect. Never finding a body nor soliciting a confession, Larry is then forced to live a life of constant suspicion and turmoil. Inheriting a car repair shop from his father, he has no customers nor friends. Silas, meanwhile, returns from Ole Miss as town Constable, making it a point to ignore Larry, more from the way their friendship ended than anything to do with the Walker case.
Up to this point Franklin has wonderfully set the stage with careful and deeply rooted character development. Slipping between the past and contemporary events, he asserts Larry and Silas’s roles while shrewdly introducing support actors, all leading to the highlight of the story. Suddenly another young woman goes missing and the onus of guilt comes heavily upon Larry again. Silas, meanwhile, is somewhat circumspect and it is with this dramatic psychological mystery that the story then takes off. Old demons are uncovered and lost truths retributed in an amazingly wrought conclusion in which Franklin achieves satisfaction for all genres. I was particularly drawn to Franklin’s overall depiction of Larry Ott and his lifelong struggle…learning that much of it was auto-biographical, it is one that struck me deeply and has stayed with me in the days since I’ve completed this work.
A serious and, at the same time fun work of fiction, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” is simply a must read. Tom Franklin is masterful in all aspects of the novel and I’d wager that readers will look to his other works for more of his intriguing writing skills. I know for sure that I will.
I enjoy books like this, an interesting story with a literary bent and love stumbling over nuggets like "... how time packs new years over the old ones but how those old years are still in there, like the earliest, tightest rings centering a tree, the most hidden, enclosed in darkness and shielded from weather. But then a saw screams in and the tree topples and the circles are stricken by the sun and the sap glistens and the stump is laid open for the world to see."
The story centers on an early friendship in a small Mississippi town between a black and white youth. One leaves for Oxford and college later returning as a town constable. The other, the white lad, took a girl on a date and she was never seen again. He was never charged but suffered 20 years of being ostracized and worse. The friendship would probably not have survived into adulthood anyway, given he times in MS, but the later developments are at the center of this story.
Normally during my daily "mental health break" with lunch and a book, I alternate a novel with a non-fiction tome, changing them from one day to the next.. Interesting that at the core of both of my recent selections is the matter of race relations. However, this one is interesting enough that I set the other one aside until I finished it. Interesting twists and turns and a worthy read. Caused me to round up from 4.5 stars.
Short review: read it!
Stand-alone that is easy to follow and difficult to put down. Some sections are emotionally charged due to content. Minor editing errors, no drag-you-down drama. There is graphic violence. Not all questions are answered.
Intriguing storyline with descriptive, powerful writing that draws the reader into each scene. Although it bounces between past and present, each section is clearly marked so the reader is never confused.
Realistic procedures, actions and reactions. Believable characters with distinct personalities. Thought-provoking dialogue.
I may re-read this story and look forward to other works by this author.
Top reviews from other countries
This is a beautifully told & deeply moving story. You won't get it out of your head in a hurry.
It concerns two very different boys who for a brief period in the seventies form a friendship of a kind. Larry the central character is a gentle quiet white boy who suffers from periods of poor health. He is clearly a disappointment to his no nonsense father Carl, who is distant with him most of the time, whereas his mother is more loving & protective.
Silas is a black boy who who lives in poverty with his mother, as squatters, in a remote & primitive cabin on land owned by Carl. They have had to leave Chicago & after a gruelling journey have ended up here.
The boys go to the same school, Larry being driven by his father, Silas walking the long distance with his mother, coatless in freezing weather. But Silas is a more robust & outgoing boy, good at sport, who in spite of a low level, endemic racism adapts well & integrates into school life. Larry on the other hand is regarded as a misfit (which in small town rural Mississipi he is), at best ignored at worst the butt of casual malice. He becomes known as Crazy Larry..
He is a solitary child, not altogether by choice, & is in fact desperately lonely. When he is not reading he roams his father's land, playing in the woods, fishing in the creek.
Certain circumstances lead to the boys becoming aware of each other, but it is only when they meet by chance in the woods that a tentative friendship developes. This they know must be kept secret, especially from their respective families who each would have their different objections.
Time passes until one day a local teenager disappears. When nothing is heard from her Larry falls under suspicion, & although never arrested both the police & the locals believe he has murdered her.
After this he is shunned, & his life becomes even narrower & lonelier as he grows to manhood. He is the victim of a kind of casual vandalism & persecution. By this time Silas has left; he moves with his mother to another town where he wins a sports scholarship. Already having quarrelled in circumstances engineered by Carl, the two men have no contact, even when, years later, Silas returns to town as a policeman.
Fears that another serious crime has occurred seem to confirm people's suspicions of Larry
The prose is outstanding, involving you completely: the places, the people & their thoughts & actions are evoked with a quiet precision of language & a deep sensitivity; Larry's care of the chickens; Silas' joy at mowing the grass; the shabbiness of small town Mississipi, its decay; the smells, scents & the extravagant green lushness of nature; the people, church- going, essentially decent but conservative, gossipy & suspicious; and the more insalubrious elements.
Does this sound clichéd? It is anything but. Franklin is never judgemental, never tells you what to think but allows us to get to know characters through their thoughts, words & actions. His authorial voice is unintrusive, painterly & supple, bringing characters & scenes to life with vivid immediacy. The past & the present are interwoven with consummate skill & subtlety.
The dramatic tension never lets up: you are fearful for Larry's welfare, scared by the clumsy assumptions of the police & the prejudices of others, spooked by incipient menace, & worried by Silas' ambivalent attitude to Larry.
This is primarily a crime novel but it is so much more than that. It is about friendship, trust, vulnerability, betrayal, forgiveness, love. It is hardly an exaggeration to say it is about being human. Not shying away from our weaknesses, the vicious & ugly in life, it is above all a tender & humane book with not a wasted word. It does perhaps, once or twice veer towards that sentimentality which so often mars American writing, but rarely & briefly; mostly it maintains a balance between emotiveness & objectivity.
However, as I said at the beginning, it is a deeply moving book; not a great weeper, I found myself at times with a certain dampness to my eye. This is, in fact the second time I have read it, & it has affected me as deeply on second reading as it did on the first.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter opens brilliantly. A single middle-aged man comes home after a storm – it’s a rural house, his parents’ old place, with chickens out the back – and he sets about putting straight what the wind has displaced. Something happens – I won’t spoil it – that tells us we are reading a thriller. The next chapter introduces a second character, just as meticulously drawn, and as the novel proceeds, the point of view switches back and forth between these two characters, with a whole host of minor characters deftly introduced with a couple of lines of dialogue, or a brief description of what they are doing, creating a rich sense of place peopled with believable human beings. The first two thirds of the book are as good as anything 21st century literature has yet produced.
What goes wrong? Something that happens so often in novels of the last twenty or thirty years that I can only put it down to publishers’ deadlines. Compare the opening chapter of this novel with any of the last half dozen chapters and you might think they were written by different people. There are a couple of wrong decisions about storyline that weaken the book as a whole – again I’ll put no spoilers here but it means that characters who felt real and three-dimensional at the beginning seem dashed off ciphers by the end.
Tom Franklin was born into an oral story-telling tradition in Alabama, and he creates a sense of this too (although shifting the action westward into Mississippi) with the various story-tellers, and even story-listeners, in this novel. He should maybe go back to Flannery O’Connor to see how she creates those tight, circular plots whose opening paragraphs always contain the story’s endpoint. Franklin has the potential to write a truly great novel, but this isn’t it, just yet. Given enough time and patience, though, he might yet create something that will genuinely stand up alongside those old classics he’s learned from so well.
Also the Southern vernacular and dialogue patterns seem very realistic.
The storyline is pretty good, although I thought it sort of petered out towards the end and denouement was a tad disappointing.
I loved this book; the story is believable, the characters well-developed and the plot comes together nicely. However what makes it so special is the quality of the writing. Franklin is lyrical and descriptive but without being over the top. He is not about showing how clever a wordsmith he is, he is about using words to create a sense of time and place.