I don’t know if you can assign William Faulkner the credit (or the blame) for an entire industry of Southern Crime fiction that has developed in the years since he published the collection of short stories, Knight’s Gambit, in 1949. But I can’t help admiring an author willing to take on the “Dixie Limited” – regardless of how successful he is.
Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter deals with the traditional Southern themes/mainstays: set in Mississippi, race relations, small town prejudice, bodies dumped in the swamp, a local police detective (though he’s a constable, not a detective)… there’s even an abandoned hunting cabin in the woods. The third person narrative moves between the 1970’s and present day as we follow the story of Larry Ott and his sometimes friend Silas “32” Jones. The two men were boys together, but when a young girl disappears after going to the drive-in with Larry their lives take drastically different paths. 32 leaves for a baseball scholarship, only to return years later as town constable. Larry spends the rest of his life as the town outcast, never convicted but always accused of a murder the reader knows he didn’t commit. When a second girl disappears 20+ years later fingers point at Larry, and it’s an unwilling Silas who takes on the burden of proving him innocent.
This novel is less about murder than it is about the relationship between Larry and 32, both likeable and interesting characters. The secrets that tie these two men together end up being a lot more absorbing than the who-dun-its, of which there are quite a few. What really happened to that girl 20 years ago? Who killed/took the current missing girl? Who shot Larry Ott (he spends a good two-thirds of the book in a coma)? Unfortunately, all the story lines in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter rely heavily on huge plot leaps that the reader is expected to make along with the main characters.
Tom Franklin’s writing is easy to read and the pacing is perfect. This is a novel that once you pick it up the time will fly by. But ultimately I was left under-whelmed. Those plot leaps really bothered me. We’re expected to buy into assumptions based on the flimsiest evidence imaginable in order to resolve several key plot points. A photograph found at the bottom of a box reveals a decades old secret. The fact that a man is a jerk becomes evidence that he’s also a murderer. Even the link between Larry and the real killer feels forced and manufactured. The construction of these mysteries is sloppy, even lazy, and I couldn’t help wondering if (hoping, really) Franklin was forced to edit key parts of the novel out for publication. This was actually suggested by a member of our book group, and could account for some of the un-eveness. (The author tells us in the afterward that the book began as three separate, unconnected stories – which could explain the rest). Yes, I enjoyed the individual characters. But it wasn’t enough. The narrative framework of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter needed to be stronger.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is at its best a beach read, eventually to be made into a movie co-starring Matthew McConaughey. At its worst it’s a pulp novel that will quickly fade into the obscurity of used bookstore and library sale shelves. It’s not a great book; but it could eventually make a halfway decent movie. Whether or not that makes it a success story, I can’t say.
Publisher: Harper Perennial, New York (2011).
ISBN: 978 006059 467 1