"M-I-Crooked letter-Crooked letter-I- Crooked letter-Crooked letter-I-Humpback-Humpback-I" was the refrain used in a certain era to teach kids how to...more"M-I-Crooked letter-Crooked letter-I- Crooked letter-Crooked letter-I-Humpback-Humpback-I" was the refrain used in a certain era to teach kids how to spell Mississippi. Tom Franklin borrows from it to title his book set in the small southeastern Mississippi community of Chabot. The title seems wholly appropriate.
I think that Franklin must have spent some time in such a place when growing up because he has got the description of it word perfect. I grew up in a similar community in northeast Mississippi and I do recognize these people. The group dynamics, the relations between the races, the everyday language of his characters all seem spot on to me.
Franklin's is a Southern Gothic mystery built around two characters, one black and one white. Silas Jones is a black constable in the town. Larry Ott is the town weirdo, known to locals as Scary Larry. But twenty-five years before, these two men's lives were intertwined in a way that will have long-term and long-delayed repercussions for each of them, as well as the community.
Larry got the moniker "Scary Larry" when he was still in high school and he had a date - his one and only one - with a local beauty. She had made the date with him, unbeknownst to Larry, in order to get him to transport her to a meeting with her real boyfriend. Larry never knew who that boyfriend was. But after he delivered her to the meeting place, the girl disappeared. She was never seen or heard from again, and Larry became a "person of interest" in her disappearance.
Larry was the geeky outsider at school. Even before the girl's disappearance, he was bullied, ostracized, and taunted. He never learned the social skills for making friends. Every night, he and his mother prayed together that God would send him just one special friend.
And for a while it seems that God has answered that prayer when Silas and his mother return to the area from Chicago and move into a cabin on the Ott farm. Larry and Silas manage to connect. They play together, explore the woods together, and Larry loans him a rifle and shows him how to shoot it. Still, the friendship has to remain a secret from the parents who would disapprove, and at school, where Silas is a star shortstop on the baseball team, he never acknowledges Larry. He ostracizes him just like everybody else. Truly, the reader's heart aches for both of these boys.
Then the tragedy of the girl's disappearance strikes and Larry becomes even further isolated. As soon as he can, he joins the army where he learns to be a mechanic like his father. Even in the army, he never fits in, and, after serving, he comes home to Chabot to a life of soul-withering isolation in a house full of Steven King and other horror novels.
Reading seems to be his only source of joy. He joins the Book-of-the-Month club and other book clubs and looks forward to the mail deliveries that relieve his boredom. Every day, he gets up and puts on a clean uniform and goes to the auto repair shop that he inherited from his father, but no customers ever come. He isn't welcome at church. He isn't welcome at the local cafe. He has no social contact except with his mother who is now in a nursing home.
Meantime, Silas has made a life for himself in Chabot. He is a respected member of the community. He has friends and a girlfriend whom he cares for and who cares for him, and he is good at his job. But there is a darker side to his life. He carries secrets which gnaw at him and weigh on his conscience.
Then, history repeats itself. The daughter of the richest family in town disappears and Scary Larry again becomes a "person of interest." The gentle weirdo is once again under siege.
As I was reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and my heart was aching for Larry, I kept thinking he reminded me of another character in Southern literature, a genre which certainly contains more than its share of "monsters." Finally, it came to me - Boo Radley! Larry, in the almost complete isolation of his life, reminded me of no one so much as that other gentle weirdo, Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird.
I thought Franklin did a masterful job of slowly peeling the onion, revealing the layers of connectedness between Larry and Silas. We know that these are two damaged souls, but only gradually do we learn just how damaged as the action moves back and forth between the present day and twenty-five years before. The well-crafted tale offers both a historical and psychological study and a window into the darker corners of the mystery of the human soul. One can hardly ask more of a book. (less)
I've been spending a lot of time in Mississippi lately. Last week it was Yoknapatawpha County with William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!. This week I'v...moreI've been spending a lot of time in Mississippi lately. Last week it was Yoknapatawpha County with William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!. This week I've been in Tibbehah County with Ace Atkins' Quinn Colson. It turns out that the two counties have a lot in common and the main thing they have in common is secrets. Secrets that can wreck lives, destroy families, and sometimes get you killed. The thing is, the "secrets" are often known by everybody in the county!
We met Quinn Colson in Atkins' previous book, The Ranger. He was an army ranger, fresh out of serving in Afghanistan and he had driven over from Fort Benning to attend his uncle's funeral. His uncle had been the sheriff of Tibbehah County and, in this entry, Quinn has followed in his footsteps, being elected sheriff in a special election to fill the post. He has swept the sheriff's department clean, firing most of the staff who had been involved in some corrupt practices. But Lillie Virgil, the tough chief deputy, is still there to give Quinn on-the-job training and watch his back.
Corruption in county government is still a problem that Quinn has to confront, but that has to take a back seat for a while. There are bad things happening in Tibbehah. It starts with a report from the local doctor of injuries to a baby that look like abuse. The investigation of child abuse leads Quinn and his deputies into the sordid world of human trafficking, a bootleg baby racket, and extreme animal abuse. If that isn't enough, there's a Mexican drug cartel making inroads in the area. They've come to purchase guns and it seems that Quinn's boyhood friend, Donnie Varner who runs the local gun shop and shooting range may be involved. Things get even dicier when it looks like the bootleg baby racket, the drug cartel, and the gunrunning may all be intertwined.
(I find it very interesting that the characters Donnie Varner and his father Luther, who owns a store, have the same last name as a family in some of the Faulkner books - The Long, Hot Summer and The Hamlet spring to mind - the patriarch of which owns a store. Coincidence? Unlikely, I think. An homage, perhaps.)
Ace Atkins has a genuine feel for and understanding of small town Mississippi and he portrays his characters with an empathy that helps to make them real for the reader. He's particularly good about emphasizing the role that the military and respect for all things military play in these communities.
In this book, too, we get to know a little more about Quinn and his relationship with his younger sister, Caddy, and their childhood together. Caddy is back in town and trying to walk the straight and narrow for the sake of her son, Jason. This insight into the family relationships helps to humanize Quinn and lets us understand him a bit better.
Atkins has created an interesting world, as rich in its own way as Yoknapatawpha County. I look forward to visiting there again. (less)
Seventy-six-year-old Lawrence Ambrose, a chip off the Truman Capote block, was once a celebrated name in the Southern literary world. But his heyday i...moreSeventy-six-year-old Lawrence Ambrose, a chip off the Truman Capote block, was once a celebrated name in the Southern literary world. But his heyday is long gone and he is mostly forgotten and ignored. All that may change though when his "biography" - actually an autobiography - comes out. He is writing the book but an ex super-star model's name will appear as the author and the word is out that the book will blow the lid off of several well-kept secrets of Ambrose's friends and running mates.
As the year draws to a close, Ambrose invites all his friends and acquaintances, including one Sarah Booth Delaney, to a holiday dinner party where the tension among the guests is thick enough to be sliced by a knife. As it turns out though, it is the host who gets sliced. Sarah Booth finds him stone cold dead in a pool of blood the morning after the party. Moreover, it seems that the much-dreaded manuscript for Ambrose's tell-all book is missing.
Soon, the woman who had loved Lawrence Ambrose for many years hires Sarah Booth to find out what happened. Specifically, she hires her to prove that the bitchy ex-model killed him.
As Sarah Booth begins her snooping - er, investigation of the case, she finds that many of the people who might have had answers to the questions that keep popping up are dead and, mostly, have been dead for many years. Will she ever be able to solve the mystery(ies), find the manuscript, and, most importantly, will she be able to earn her way as a private investigator in the little Delta town of Zinnia, Mississippi?
Meanwhile, as Sarah Booth is pursuing her lines of inquiry, Jitty, the antebellum ghost with whom she shares her family home, Dahlia House, is pursuing her single-minded obsession of getting Sarah Booth safely married and impregnated so that the Delaney bloodline is secure. Unfortunately, her task looks even more hopeless than that of Sarah Booth becoming a competent and successful PI.
This series is a bit of a light-hearted romp and it is fun to read, but I am one of those readers who can be distracted and irritated by little things. Things like rechristening the home of William Faulkner as Rowan Oaks. It's Rowan Oak, singular. And then there's Sarah Booth's hound which figures prominently in this story. The dog is repeatedly described as a red tic hound. I kept imagining a big red dog with a nervous twitch. There are Red Tick(or Redtick) hounds and Blue Tick (or Bluetick) hounds, but, as far as I know, there are no red tic hounds. An editing problem maybe, but an annoying one. (less)
I feel that I should put this book in the category of guilty pleasures. I know in my heart that it is not the kind of book that a woman about to celeb...moreI feel that I should put this book in the category of guilty pleasures. I know in my heart that it is not the kind of book that a woman about to celebrate her mumble-mumble birthday should be spending her time reading, and, yet, frankly, it was a joy to read! Sort of a Fifty Shades of Grey without all that nasty BDSM. There was a bit of hot and heavy sex but it was more alluded to than explicit, which is only proper in a story about a genteelly-bred Southern woman.
Sarah Booth Delaney of Zinnia, Mississippi is not your stereotypical Southern belle though. She is over thirty, unemployed, and - horror of horrors! - unwed. She lives in her ancestral home, Dahlia House, in the Mississippi Delta. It is an ante bellum structure that has sheltered many generations of Delaneys, but now Sarah Booth is flat broke with no prospects of getting any money and she's about to lose her home, just when she's begun to understand how much she loves it.
But Sarah Booth isn't alone in the ancestral home. Jitty, the hundred-and-fifty-year-old ghost of her great-great-grandmother's nanny, inhabits the structure as well, and Jitty is one determined ghost! Mostly, she is determined that all of her hundred and fifty years with the Delaney family will not have been in vain and that Sarah Booth will not be allowed to lose her - and Jitty's - family home.
Jitty suggests a course of action which sets Sarah Booth on the road to some very unladylike behavior and finally gets her involved in investigating two violent deaths that occurred twenty years before. Both deaths were called accidents at the time they occurred, but Sarah Booth is not so sure. And when the gorgeous and sexy son of the two dead people unexpectedly returns to Zinnia from Europe where he's lived all these years, Sarah Booth becomes more convinced than ever.
Then one of the people she had interviewed in her investigation turns up murdered and she is accused of the murder. In order to extricate herself, she must solve the puzzle of those long-ago murders. And just like that, Sarah Booth Delaney is launched on her new career as a private investigator. Maybe it will be lucrative enough to save the family manse - if only she can stay alive.
This is the first in a series and it is an excellent introduction to the main characters. The book is written with a light touch and a lot of humor. Sarah Booth and Jitty are delightful characters. Sarah Booth is the kind of person that a woman would be lucky to call her best friend. As for Jitty, well, I'd love to have a ghost like her inhabiting my house. (less)