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Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter Paperback – May 17, 2011
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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.
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.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Franklin's third novel (after Smonk) is a meandering tale of an unlikely friendship marred by crime and racial strain in smalltown Mississippi. Silas Jones and Larry Ott have known each other since their late 1970s childhood when Silas lived with his mother in a cabin on land owned by Larry's father. At school they could barely acknowledge one another, Silas being black and Larry white, but they secretly formed a bond hunting, fishing, and just being boys in the woods. When a girl goes missing after going on a date with Larry, he is permanently marked as dangerous despite the lack of evidence linking him to her disappearance, and the two boys go their separate ways. Twenty-five years later, Silas is the local constable, and when another girl disappears, Larry, an auto mechanic with few customers and fewer friends, is once again a person of interest. The Southern atmosphere is rich, but while this novel has the makings of an engaging crime drama, the languid shifting from present to past, the tedious tangential yarns, and the heavy-handed reveal at the end generate far more fizz than pop.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
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
The story takes place in small town Chabot, Mississippi. Larry is white and is an awkward kid who does not fit in with his classmates or his family. He grows up to inherit his father's automotive shop but he has no customers. Silas is the town constable. He is black and was a baseball star in high school and college. He returns to Chabot after military service. Larry and Silas have a complicated past. In high school, Larry takes a popular girl on a date. She is never seen again and Larry is accused of killing her, though he was never convicted due to lack of proof. Nonetheless, his life is ruined in the small town and he is the victim of gossip and harassment. In the present, a local college girl goes missing and Larry is accused of killing her. Again, no evidence is found. Eventually the truth comes out, but there are a lot of wounds in the process.
The novel moves back and forth in time and alternates between the perspectives of Silas and Larry. The mysteries slowly unfold and they both find friendship and the beginnings of redemption. The atmosphere of the "Deep South" was well done in my opinion. The story was very compelling. I could have read this in a couple of days if my schedule allowed. The writing was evocative and beautiful. The solutions to the mysteries were not too surprising, but they were well done. There is a nice slow unfolding to the story. This is a novel that would qualify as both a mystery and literary fiction.
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.