Although there is a murder mystery at the centre of Tom Franklin’s novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, it isn’t what kept me reading.
In the late 1970s in rural Mississippi, Larry Ott lives with his parents. Larry’s an awkward kid who spends his spare time reading Stephen King novels and trying to ingratiate himself with the students at school. His father owns the local garage, and while Larry admires the way his father can tell a story, he and his dad aren’t close.
Then Silas Jones moves to town. Silas and his mother live in a shack deep in the woods, property owned by Larry’s father. A tentative friendship blossoms between the boys. Then, when the boys are in high school, Larry takes a local girl to the drive-in and she’s never heard from again. There’s no evidence to prove Larry had anything to do with her disappearance, but serious damage is done to his reputation.
Twenty years later, Larry operates his father’s garage but has no customers because of his tarnished past. Silas returns home to Chabot as a constable and another girl goes missing. Larry is the obvious suspect.
It sounds like a murder mystery and that is part of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter‘s appeal, but the book is more than that. I felt a great deal of sympathy for Larry, for his awkward relationship with his father – a man he tried to please but never could. When the story opens, we see him lovingly tend his mother’s chickens. He’s built them a contraption, a “head-high movable cage with an open floor” which he could move around so the hens would always have new grass to graze. Not exactly the actions of a cold-blooded killer. He also forms a relationship with a petty criminal, Wallace, out of sheer loneliness.
The story alternates between present-day and the boys’ shared past. Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask why Larry didn’t stay away when he had the chance, or why Silas came home, but I still think Franklin handled their relationship, its secrets and revelations well.