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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin ($14.99)

Here is a mystery, birthed in the languid, humid cauldron of the South, and set free by quick and sensitive writing. Tom Franklin was nominated for an Edgar award for this book, and it says something about the excellent competition this past year that Franklin did not win. (The winner was The Lock Artist, an excellent novel by Steve Hamilton, also awarded an MBTB star!)

"Crooked letter, crooked letter" is part of the chant that children use to learn how to spell Mississippi. It is to Chabot, a small Mississippi town, that Silas "32" (for his high school baseball team number) Jones returns after wandering the world and trying to escape his impoverished Southern roots. He is now the constable of that tiny company town. The owner of the mill that supports the town and pays 32's salary is bereft because his daughter is missing. This eerily mirrors a crime committed years ago when 32 and his friend Larry Ott were 17. Larry was the prime suspect in the disappearance of a classmate, his neighbor Cindy Walker. A body was never found, so Larry was never charged. Now Larry and 32 are both 41 years old, and Larry has been living a hermit's life, shunned by the community, but tied to it nevertheless because of his incapacitated mother. Even before Cindy disappeared, Larry and 32's friendship had begun to fracture, fostered in part by Larry's cold and callous father and Larry's overly protective mother. It also didn't help that 32 is black and Larry is white. Perhaps we like to think that such things don't matter anymore, but Franklin is here to tell us differently.

Despite Larry's attempts to contact him after his return, 32 is reluctant to communicate with Larry. It turns out that it isn't just because he's a constable and Larry is once again a suspect in a disappearance and presumed murder. In a style reminiscent of another fine writer of Southern-inflected mysteries, Thomas L. Cook, Franklin slowly reveals Larry and 32's true story. Franklin's pace is a little swifter than Cook's; where Cook is molasses, Franklin is maple syrup.

Is this where I admit that about halfway through the book, I skimmed the ending? I felt it enhanced my reading of the rest of the book, but I certainly wouldn't recommend this approach. What it did give me was a respect for the way Franklin led his story to its conclusion.

For Franklin's intriguing main characters, his spot-on side characters, and heart-breaking story, I have awarded this book an MBTB star!

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