Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a book I would happily recommend to any reader, no questions asked. Tom Franklin’s third novel simply deserves all eyes that come across it – this is some true blue Oprah’s book club shit to be sure. Now, coming from the poop-covered mouth of your dear old Nerd (that sounds like less of a statement regarding my use of profanity than a glimpse into my apparently quite disturbing diet) that praise might sound damning, but I assure you that that is not my intent. I simply mean that everyone, from the basement crazy to the cat-lady cozy fan, will find something to enjoy in this beautifully told, completely engrossing novel. But before I fucking shout praises from the bottom of the well, let me first hip you to what this shit’s about.
Twenty-five years ago the painfully shy Larry Ott took a girl on his first date to the drive-in. She was never seen again. With no body and no witnesses, the police could never convict him of the crime. The town of Chabot, Mississippi, however, was happy to press charges in smaller ways, making Larry a friendless recluse and infamous local legend, giving him the name “Scary Larry.” Now another girl has gone missing and again the whole town makes Larry for the crime. Everyone, that is, but Silas “32” Jones, Larry’s lone childhood friend and Chabot’s new constable. A former baseball prodigy who has only recently returned to town, we soon find that his long-ago bond with Larry is not the only thing that connects 32 to the case…
Franklin uses the loose “skeletons in the closet” mystery structure to tell a hugely moving story about loneliness and friendship that, though lacking the car chases and shootoouts genre fans might expect, is never anything less than totally fucking involving. Instead of making shit insanely complicated, Franklin keeps the twists coming simply through perspective, the story switching from present day to past and from Larry to Silas chapter by chapter. Also, once all the cards are on the table, the story thankfully keeps the scale small, none of that dreaded “this shit goes all the way to the governor’s mansion” shit that would ruin such a simple tale.
But even more so than the organic storytelling and structure, what keeps you burning through Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is Franklin’s ridiculously assured way with setting and characters. The author somehow manages, without ever bogging down the page with description, to really make you feel the Deep South heat, to get you in tune to the rhythm of small town life in Chabot. The Nerd feels like he can taste the hot dogs made with care at the Hub, that I can smell Larry’s childhood home now filled with old horror paperbacks – Stephen King being Larry’s true friend his whole life.
Speaking of Larry, the guy will fucking absolutely break your heart in this book. His isolation, his sad and unwavering personal schedule, his need to connect with any human being available – all so gorgeously rendered. Oh, Jesus: The sad little prayer he and his mother say every night before bed about “God, please bring Larry a special friend, just for him?” I mean, I don’t consider myself a puss or anything but I’m getting emotional just thinking about it. (It’s just allergies, I swear!) Then there’s 32, a character of great guilt and disappointment with how his life went from showing great promise as a child only to end up a twelve dollar an hour cop in the shithole town he grew up in. With the latest girl going missing, 32 sees a shot at not only a promotion but, in regard to clearing Larry’s name, possibly redemption.
This is some old school, straight-up classic storytelling, dear reader, a novel you’re going to want to tell everyone about, even the people in your life who read maybe three books a year. I remember reading a piece by Roger Ebert about how movies are the one thing we as a culture can all relate to and recommend, his point being that we should all have two hours to invest in a movie of any genre, time period or language that someone recommends. Even though it could be a major investment of time for a non-avid reader, I wholeheartedly believe that there’s no one out there who couldn’t enjoy Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.