Tom Franklin is one of my favorite crime fabulists of the reconstruction. His previous novels Hell at the Breech and Smonk, plus his short story collection Poachers, depict a deep South you’ve never quite seen before, full of exotic allure and infested with psychotics of every stripe. And while bound by Franklin’s singular prose style that bounces between rugged lyricism and a gleefully accomplished ribald streak, each book has struck a tone distinctly its own. With his latest, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, he has evolved again.
Quieter, more measured and emotionally rich, but every bit as dangerous, the new book unfolds along dual time lines—in the present, Silas “32” Jones, the former baseball player, now policeman investigates the disappearance of a young girl while everyone in town has their gaze fixed directly on “Scary Larry” Ott, a reclusive oddball who was Jones' friend twenty years earlier. The people of Chabot, Mississippi are suspicious of Larry because he is the prime suspect in the disappearance of another girl two decades previous, but since a body was never recovered, the police have never been able to prove anything.
The second story line goes back twenty-plus years to Larry and Silas’s childhood and the complicated friendship that they develop, the building up and tearing down of which is wrenching and the consequences of their fallout are felt far into the future.
Franklin’s characters are fully realized, operating in three dimensions and the places they go seem as unavoidable in retrospect as they are surprising along the way. The motivations of the chief players are revealed with a sure and steady hand and as the pacing of the story picks up, the interconnectedness of everything is unveiled to maximum effect.
This was one of my most anticipated books of the year. It came in under the weight of three highly accomplished previous works and a four-year break since the last. I wish I could say I savored it while I read, but I’m afraid I was a bit piggy. I rushed through it, but I’d suggest you take your time with this one. It’s worth it.
Jedidiah Ayres writes fiction and keeps the blog Hardboiled Wonderland.
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