Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter Makes Me Wish I Had Attended His Session at the Southern Festival of Books

Tom Franklin was actually in one of the sessions I attended at the Southern Festival of Books last year -- the Don't Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Jobs They Quit, edited by Sonny Brewer, session. However, that was on the last day, Franklin's individual session focused on Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter long since over. Sometimes in life, you find out you were wrong, and this is one of those instances for me. I should have attended the session about this novel! Perhaps then, I would have read it sooner rather than later. Instead, it took me several months. 

As I wrote about Sara J. Henry's debut novel Learning to Swim, Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter encompasses multiple genres that are of interest to me. It is another example of the literary mystery, a hybrid composed of a piece of literary fiction that contains components of a mystery novel, as well. Franklin adds yet another layer, though, by setting his novel in the deep south. Thus, my ultimate genre is born: a southern literary mystery. 

I'm not sure I would say Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is my new favorite book (that honor is currently a tie between Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies and Silas House's Clay's Quilt). However, it was an excellent read that makes me excited to see what else Franklin will release in the future.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is the tale of two men, both living in Mississippi (thus, the "crooked letter" reference to the childhood trick for spelling the state's name). Twenty years ago, a young girl disappeared. The last person to see her alive was Larry Ott, and while no evidence was ever found to charge or convict him in her murder, the small town where they lived long ago determined his guilt. After a stint in the military, Larry returned to take over his father's auto repair shop. His only customers are travelers passing through who don't know his history.

One day after another girl turns up missing, someone comes to even the perceived score, and Larry is shot in his own home. The police officer on the cases is Larry's only childhood friend, Silas Jones. Silas and Larry were an unlikely pair whose friendship formed one summer and then dropped off when Silas became a high school football star. As he struggles with his own life difficulties, Silas also begins remembering the first days of his life in the south, when he moved to Mississippi from up north and Larry befriended him. He not only works on solving the current cases, but also tries to dig into the girl's disappearance all those years ago.

Franklin's novel worked on several different levels. It was a successful literary mystery. Well-drawn characters (both those of Larry and Silas, but also the side characters -- Larry's father from their childhood, Silas's current girlfriend, even Silas's secretary). Well-developed plot (perfect twists and turns, well-written flashbacks). The novel was also an excellent example of southern literature. Franklin drew the Mississippi setting as though it were a character in its own right.

While I loved the plot, even down to the surprising ending, I wasn't as entranced by Franklin's last lines as I wanted to be. I love when a novel begins and ends with perfectly worded lines. The first line appealed to me in many ways:
"The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house."
It has pizazz, intrigue, and suspense all built into that one sentence. But the last lines were nothing compared to Franklin's writing throughout the novel:
"What he thought before falling asleep was that he needed to call Silas in the morning, tell him to stop at the auto parts house, get a carburetor kit for the Jeep. He, Silas, knew the model."
All in all, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was an excellent read -- and a close-to-first, in the hybrid southern literary mystery. Thankfully, Franklin has several other books I can now go back and enjoy. Tom Franklin is the author of Poachers, a short story collection, and two southern historical novels: Hell at the Breech and Smonk. He and his wife, poet Beth Ann Fennelly, are both professors at the University of Mississippi in the MFA in creative writing program.


  1. I've heard a little about this book around the blogs. Now I'm convinced...going to have to add it to my wishlist!

    I'm still kicking myself for not going to the festival last year. I am going to make an effort to attend for sure this year.

  2. Franklin does a great job of capturing and holding the reader's attention with this twisting tale of crime, friendship and commentary on society's tendency to play judge. Bonus: it is an easy read. Took me not even two afternoons to get through the whole story. Only complaint: it was a bit too predictable to solve the "who dunnit?" element. Overall, a great story with plenty of action.

    1. It was a bit predictable, but because Franklin made it about the other themes you mentioned -- friendship, society as judge -- I think it's still a worthy read. A little more "literary" than "mystery" I suppose!



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