"The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house." With the first sentence it's clear that CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER will be a humdinger of a thriller. What it takes two or three pages to realize is that not only is it a first-rate thriller, but also a beautiful, trenchant observation of rural Mississippi some 30 years ago. Tom Franklin's Southern dialogue is pinpoint perfection, his scenes painterly, bringing to our mind's eye Chabot, a small decaying town and its inhabitants, so vivid it is as if we were seeing everything and everyone in wide screen color.
Yet it is the story that holds us as it is told through the eyes of Larry and Silas, alternating between the days of their youth and adulthood. As a boy Larry is a loner, ostracized and bullied by his classmates because all he does is read (Stephen King and other horror stories), belittled by his father, Carl, whom Larry understood to like "most everyone except him. From an early bout of stuttering, through a sickly, asthmatic childhood, through hay fever and allergies, frequent bloody noses, glasses he kept breaking, he'd inched into the shambling, stoop-shouldered pudginess of the dead uncles on his mother's side." Called "Scary Larry" by schoolmates he was not a pretty picture, yet he remained a gentle soul.
Each night when his mother prayed with him at bedtime she asked for a friend for Larry, someone just for him. And then then an unlikely friend appeared - Silas, an African-American son of a poor single mother who worked two jobs. Their friendship was brief, just a few months, ending when Larry had his first date. He took a girl to a drive-in movie, and she apparently disappeared. Of course, Larry is seen as her abductor, perhaps a murderer. But, no body is found. Larry simply exists in a lonely state, an outcast, seen by all as a crazy man for over 20 years.
After that length of time Silas returns to Chabot as a constable. He is aware that Larry comes to the garage he runs every day, although there are never any customers. Silas ignores him until the night a monster visited Larry's house and said, "Ever body knows what you did."
Silas is now forced to remember what he has tried so hard to forget.
This is a story of friendship reclaimed, atonement, and the devastation wrought by bigotry. Tom Franklin has crafted an unforgettable novel, one that resonates with truth of place and character. CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER will not be forgotten.
- Gail Cooke
on 17 March 2011
I've never written a review before but this book has moved me to do so. It was recommended to me by an American lady whom I met on holiday - we swapped British and USA authors. This is a really memorable book - I won't go into the nitty gritty as Gail Cooke has captured the essence so well and articulately in another review. What I will say that it's such a cleverly written novel and reveals twists and turns on a need-to-know basis that there's always something exciting happening. The characters are well-drawn and believable - the main characters have foibles unlike the characters in many bestsellers. I couldn't put this book down and it remained with me for days I urge you to read it.
This is a marvellous book; one that, after you have read it, makes you want to go out and buy multi-copies to give to all your friends for Christmas, and one which inspires the sentiment: "if you only read one novel this year, make it this one". Since its original publication in the USA, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter has been a bestseller as well as being extremely well reviewed. I hadn't paid it any attention, though, until it won this year's CWA Gold Dagger award the day before I spotted a copy in my local library - so I thought I'd give it a try.
The novel is set in rural Mississippi, telling the tale, switching back and forth in time, of two boys - Silas Jones, a baseball player who becomes a poorly paid traffic cop, and Larry Ott, an ostracised countryman and car mechanic. The first chapter pulls the reader in straight away, describing Larry's lonely lifestyle in his parents' house; his childhood memories of family tensions; the jobs he's devised at home and "work"; and his strange welcoming of what seems to be a certain death.
The story unfolds of Larry's past as he grew up in the impoverished hamlet of Chabot, which boasts a lumber mill and not much else in terms of employment prospects. Larry's father runs Ottomotive, a car repair shop, but is disappointed in his son's lack of mechanical ability and treats him as if he's a wimp because he is always reading (largely horror stories and comics). Larry is very close to his mother, but never manages to make friends at school. His parents have a few hundred acres of land, which do not seem to be used for anything agricultural apart from supporting some chickens. The nearest cabin is owned by Cecil Walker, another drunk who is on permanent disability after a long-ago accident at the mill. He lives there with his quiet wife and her daughter, the sluttish Cindy. This girl vanished when Larry was 16, under circumstances which make everyone in the town convinced Larry must have killed her. They've shunned him for 25 years, and he's had to live with those consequences as well as being shaped by them.
Silas came to Chabot as a young boy when Alice, his mother, had to leave Chicago. He first encounters Larry with his father Carl in the morning on their daily drive to Larry's school. Carl gives the mother and son a lift, and the two boys eventually become friends - especially when Larry discovers that Silas is living in a run-down old shack at the edge of the Ott property. The boys spend time together in the outdoors, despite Larry's instinctive knowledge of his parents' disapproval (he is white; Silas is black - Chabot is, to put it mildly, segregationist), but as they become teenagers their friendship weakens, culminating in Silas leaving town on a baseball scholarship, and eventually to "Ole Miss" (University of Mississippi at Oxford). Years later, having finished his career as "32', Silas returns to Chabot as a policeman whose main job is to direct traffic twice a day as the workers arrive and leave the mill. When Larry tries to reconnect with his old friend, Silas won't have anything to do with him.
Matters come to a head when, in the present day, another girl goes missing - not just any girl but the daughter of the family who owns the mill. Everyone leaps to the conclusion that Larry is responsible, though the police can find no evidence nor make him confess.
Although from the account I have just provided, the book sounds like a crime novel, it isn't. The disappearance of the two girls is not described directly but rather is part of the book's background canvas. Instead, the author writes about life in all its tiny details in Chabot, in the countryside, the diners and the "trashy" areas; about the people who live there - not just Larry and Silas but their mothers, Larry's father, Silas's colleagues and contacts at work - in such brief but telling prose that they all come alive on the page as real characters. The novel is infused with the love of nature, of the snakes and the creepers, the weed-ridden fields and the creeks where people fish, often through Larry's eyes, as his character gradually unfolds before us. (Later, Silas's character also unfolds, and he's a very different proposition.) The extreme poverty in which almost all the characters live is never emphasised, but again, infuses everything in a million subtle ways. Here is a portrait of a community and an atmosphere that is so telling that the reader is there, experiencing it seemingly first-hand. Here are relationships between parents and children, and the lives of those children when they become adults, that are tellingly depicted, with deceptive simplicity yet with great insight.
The "crimes" in the book are incidental - they drive the plot but they aren't central to what is being told. There is no mystery as such - the two or three revelations or solutions are not surprises as we can see them coming - the interest is not in finding out what happened, or who committed the crimes, but how they happened, which is conveyed in parallel with the slow revelation of the truth of Larry's and Silas's secret histories.
I don't usually like to compare authors to other authors, but this book has more in common with the writings of John Steinbeck, in particular in the depictions of the exuberance of the natural world amid a poor and deprived human society, than it does with a "crime" novel. What's more, it has the kind of moral heart that is so beautifully conveyed, with all its tragedy, toughness and hope, by Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
on 24 February 2012
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is the story of Larry Ott and Silas Jones. Larry Ott is the town pariah, in his teens he took a girl on a date and she was never seen again. Larry Ott swore he was innocent, and nothing was ever proved, but he lives an isolated life, with no friends and is often asked to no longer frequent certain shops and even churches. He stands in the community as a murderer and he serves a life sentence of their prejudice.
Now another girl has gone missing. All fingers point to Larry Ott. Then a body is found under his porch.
Silas Jones is the local cop. It's his job to find the missing girl, his job to investigate Larry Ott. But, he was once Larry Ott's boyhood friend, at a time when white boys and black boys didn't socially mix. Like the rest of the town, Larry makes him uncomfortable and like everybody else he has backed away. Faced with a fresh investigation Silas has to confront their shared past.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter has rave reviews on Amazon from Philip Roth to Dennis Lehane and is rated as five stars. I feel I am almost "wrong" in not having the same effusive reaction to it as such luminaries.
It isn't that the story isn't good, the novels big moments are really great, particularly the two reveals near the end, one of which is perhaps a bit guessable. It's just that I found two elements quite poor the connective tissue, the prose between event and event I often found a bit tedious. In addition this supposedly pivotal, deep bond between Larry and Silas is ultimately a very short lived and fractured friendship when set down on page, and doesn't seem to warrant the nostalgia each has for it before the secrets of the past are revealed.
I was quite disappointed in that. But, it is a good story nonetheless 7/10
on 31 May 2011
Along with Philip Meyer's American Rust and Willy Vlautin's Lean on Pete, this is one of the most memorable, rewarding and moving novels to come out of America in recent years. Although it falls in that difficult territory - a literary thriller (and will probably suffer because of it, in terms of sales) - it deserves to find a significant readership: this is fiction with real heart and soul, and two characters, in Larry and Silas, who will stay with you for a long time.
on 12 November 2014
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.
on 15 May 2012
I enjoyed this book because unusually it had good characterisation of the main characters. It had a good story and the action took place over a period of years. It is set in Mississippi with great attention to the detail of the setting. It is beautifully written and I did not have any idea who the perpetrator of the murders was until the very end. A very good read.
on 29 November 2012
It took me a while to get into this story - about 25% of the book - but once I did I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found the characters well drawn and entirely believable; the landscape was also effectively described in a sparse and slightly unusual style.
Central themes of regret and guilt are explored, alongside the obvious backdrop of racism, making this far more than a crime novel. The focus is on characterisation and psychology, which I thought worked well. There were a couple of coincidences enabling the plot, but life's full of them so that's hardly a complaint.
I'd definitely read this author again.
4 Stars (Half a star docked for a slow start as that might put people off)
on 19 October 2011
Great book, I would have read it all in one sitting if I'd had time. Memorable characters, a strong plot, really good dialogue. Keeps you hooked right to the end, I hope someone (decent) makes it into a great film. I was a times reminded of "To Kill a Mocking Bird", it really is that good!
on 31 October 2013
Larry Otts and Silas Jones are two boys growing up in Mississippi. Silas is black and Larry is white but they have many things in common, both are only children and are finding it hard to fit in with society. Larry's father is abusive and thinks little of him, Silas' mother is a poor single parent. Larry is surprised that an attractive local girl asks him on date but there is a twist, she disappears and Larry is suspected of murder. With no proof Larry cannot be convicted officially but in the eyes of the town he is a murder and treated as an outsider with no friends. Trapped in the town looking after his mother, Larry is lost in a world of his own, his main pleasure coming from reading. Silas was a talented athlete and went to college on a scholarship. He is now the local lawman and another local teenage girl has disappeared.
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.