Sara's Reviews > Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
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's review
Oct 19, 2011

it was amazing
Read in September, 2011

This is a mystery in the grand tradition of southern gothic. There's a white girl, missing for twenty years. A town full of gossips. A father with a disappointing white son and a secret black son. A peculiar white loner. A black baseball star returned to his home town after his glory days are over. A younger white girl gone missing just days ago.

But this is also southern gothic with a slightly less terrifying edge than your average Faulkner novel. Yes, the horrors of racism, repression, and Southern Baptist vengeance are all here, and all real. But Franklin drags them into the daylight of Coca Cola, endless greasy brown bags of fried food to go, mail-order book clubs and the inadvertent egalitarianism of local television news. His central character, Larry Ott, who has lived for twenty years with his tiny town's suspicion that he is a murderer, might be one of the most miserable characters in contemporary fiction. But Franklin alleviates his misery by placing endless volumes of pop horror fiction in his hands, as if to say, yes, his life is a nightmare, but we're not going to wander quite into Stephen King territory here.

And Franklin doesn't. Instead he explores the possibility of change and forgiveness in a Mississippi town scarred by centuries of racism. And he heralds the arrival of such possibilities by turning away from the isolated shacks and hidden photographs of archetypal southern gothic, and toward -- cable tv. Lying in their hospital beds after nearly being killed, two characters gradually see their way out of a tangled past while flipping through channel after channel of innocuous television shows. Instead of being mired in a sadistic regionalism, Franklin seems to imply, even the south will be integrated into the banalities of popular culture, and that's ok. That might even be what saves it.

On a prose level, the book is astonishingly well-written, with all kinds of satisfying but unobtrusive details meted out sparingly, setting the scene without knocking you over the head. On a plot level, probably not what most fans of the mystery genre are exactly looking for. When the "mystery" in this book is solved, it's solved so quietly as to almost be beside the point. But it's one of the few books I've read this year that I'd recommend just as readily to a book snob as to an avid consumer of mass market paper backs. It's that good.
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Suzi Major spoiler...

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