Monday, December 05, 2011

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Thanks to Melissa at Melissa's Eclectic Bookshelf for mentioning that she'd love to read a review of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. I was having trouble deciding where to start on that nasty overloaded sidebar backlog of review books.

I bought a copy of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter because it was my face-to-face book group's November selection.

I'm not sure if anything in this review could be considered a spoiler (I have attempted not to give anything crucial away), but there are a couple things that would probably best be saved for the reading. So, if you're worried, skip my review.

The basic plot (without spoilers): Many years ago, Larry Ott and Silas "32" Jones were best friends for a brief time. But, because Larry was white and Silas black, the friendship had to be kept quiet. An incident ended their friendship not long after it began. During high school, Larry remained awkward, bookish and an outcast. Silas became a popular athlete.

At her request, Larry took a girl named Cindy out on a date and she was never heard from again. Accused of murder, already an outcast at school, Larry eventually joined the army but returned to care for his mother. He became known as "Scary Larry" while Silas moved on, went to school at Ole Miss and got a job in law enforcement. What really happened the night Larry took Cindy out on a date?

Now, the disappearance of another young woman has brought Larry back into focus as a suspected killer. And his old friend Silas is doing the investigating. Silas has been back in town for a while, but he hasn't even looked at Larry when he's happened to drive by the garage where Larry sits around waiting for business. When Silas finds Larry near death, he is reminded of their past friendship and decides he must solve both crimes. Did Larry kill another woman and then attempt suicide? Or is he the victim of a murderer, as well? Only Silas is motivated to find out the answers . . . because Silas knows something the rest of his buddies in law enforcement don't know about the night Cindy disappeared.

A quick note: I have one other Tom Franklin book on my shelf and SuziQ, who knows my tendency to nightmares, has told me she thinks I should avoid it. And, in general, I avoid mysteries (although I'll occasionally read one for a change of pace). So, I probably wouldn't have bothered with Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, if not for my F2F book club. More on that, later.

What did you like most about the book? Mind-blowing writing. I thought Tom Franklin's prose was amazing, the characterization sharp, the story gripping. Because I started reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter before we left for Japan and didn't pick it back up until at least 3 weeks later, I am doubly impressed. I only had to go back a page or two to remember what exactly was going on. Writing that sticks with you so completely for that long is very unusual.

What did you think of the main character? The book shifts back and forth between the viewpoints of Larry and Silas, so I consider both protagonists. Larry is full-grown when this new mystery occurs, still living alone and an outcast; he's never really had a chance to come into his own as an adult. But, in spite of the fact that he's a pariah, he's a good man. He has a heart; he's a man of honor. He's a sad, lonely man but I liked him.

Silas, on the other hand, is also an interesting and strong character but he has one very large flaw -- he hasn't told the truth about the night that Cindy disappeared. He knows something crucial. But, what does Silas know? Could it have saved Larry? Would Silas have put himself in danger by sharing that information, back when Cindy disappeared? Those questions and their answers help to reveal Silas' character so I won't tell you exactly how I felt about Silas in the end.

Thoughts about the plot? The plot has enough interwoven threads to be engaging and make your mind churn without ever becoming so intricate that it makes your head hurt. So, I'd say the plotting is just about perfect. It's a mystery but it's literary -- as much a book of deep character studies as a tale of investigation into crimes present and past.

I particularly loved the way Franklin flipped racial perspective on its head. Silas, the black man, is the guy everyone looks up to -- a good citizen, great athlete, very much respected. Larry, the white guy, is the fellow everyone's afraid of -- possible criminal (never proven), misunderstood, considered frightening. It was refreshing to read a Southern mystery with a respected, likable black character doing the crime solving.

The only thing I didn't like: Silas and Larry met when Silas moved down to Mississippi from Chicago. Silas' mother is from the area in Mississippi where they move. She says, "I have people" there, when he asks why they're going to Mississippi. But, Silas has the same exact accent as his mother, Larry and everyone else. I would have liked to see a slight distinction in the way Silas spoke -- some hint that he'd picked up a little of Chicago speech while he lived there. He does occasionally say something with a bit more formality, but it still never felt like he had any hint of the Midwest in his mode of speech to me.

The Southern dialect is pretty distinctive, fits the way I've heard some people speak around here and yet is written in a very readable manner. You may wonder why a character calls barbed wire "bobwire", at first, but then it becomes plain that the book is written in vernacular yet done so well you think the author doesn't know how to spell. Pretty impressive really.

In general: Excellent story, astounding writing, perfect plotting . . . gosh. I think Tom Franklin should go to the head of the class and bow. Definitely one of the best books I've read, this year. Highly recommended. Warning: It's pretty gritty. There's some bad language and a few really graphic descriptions from murder scenes (of the stomach-turning variety).

And, what about that group meeting? We had a really interesting discussion at my F2F meeting. Everyone was impressed with the writing and nobody complained about the dialect (most are from Mississippi, so they'd know better than I would how genuine it comes off). When we got to the question, "What did you think of Larry," though, a lot of our members thought he was really "pathetic" or "pitiful". I was the odd reader out. I actually liked Larry and thought he was somewhat stunted in his growth as a human because of not ever having much normal interaction with people as an adult. But, he was honorable. He was a reader and obviously intelligent, if socially inept. He could have stayed away from town, built a decent life for himself and left that whole world of rejection behind. But, he chose to take care of his mother, who was already showing signs of Alzheimer's when his father passed away, and remained an outcast simply because he cared enough to stick around.

"The Land had a way of covering the wrongs of people" is a quote that was mentioned in the discussion questions. What did the author mean by that? Again, I was the odd one out. I thought he was referring to the passage of time. Because the land grows and changes, evidence of lives and the crimes people commit disappears beneath layers of soil and vines, etc. People die and become part of the land. Civilizations are buried if you take that line of reasoning very far. When I said I thought that quote referred to the passage of time and tried to explain, though, I must have done a pretty crappy job. I got a lot of blank looks and everyone else ended up saying they didn't quite understand what he was trying to say. Well. Tom Franklin lives in Mississippi, so I suppose one of us needs to breeze by Ole Miss and ask him. *holds up hand to volunteer*

There was also a question about the title of the book and I'll just skip right over and tell you what my friend John Floyd said (author in my sidebar---->). John said Tom Franklin told him he originally planned to set the book in Alabama but he wanted to call the book Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter so he changed the setting to Mississippi. So, apparently there's no deep meaning to the title.

Back to that bit about the other book SuziQ suggested I avoid. Hell at the Breech is the title of the other Franklin book I own. It's around here, buried somewhere. I see it, now and then, and I keep thinking I need to get rid of it. As it turns out, Hell at the Breech was a book my group discussed several years ago (I've only been a member for about a year). And, they kind of hated it. They all agreed the writing was great, very vivid, but it was so very violent that some of them couldn't finish it, a couple had nightmares, several mentioned being unable to get some of those images out of their minds, to this day. Yeah. That one's going out the door, the next time I see it. But, I do plan to read more by Franklin. I'll just ask SuziQ for advice, before I do.

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  1. Toootally wanna read this one. This type of book is usually not my thing, but I've read such good reviews of it!

  2. Andi

    You need to read it. It's not my thing, either, but you'll appreciate the excellent writing. It's well deserving of the high praise it's received.

  3. Page 251 (in the hardback edition) had a paragraph about trees and years that still melts my brain every time I re-read it.

    Hell at the Breech is a beautifully told, but incredibly brutal story. You are smart to avoid that one. I loved it and continue to recommend it to folks who can handle the brutality, but I think it would be troublesome for you.

    I'm currently reading Franklin's short story collection "Poachers" and loving it. With every story I'm appreciating more and more his talent for implanting a setting in your head and leaving just enough of the story untold for you to finish it out on your own.

  4. SuziQ,

    I'm all for brain-melting writing. LOL But, yeah, "brutal" is definitely not for me. I trust you on that, so I'm not sure why I haven't bothered to pass on my copy of Hell at the Breech but I weed my books pretty frequently, these days. I'll come across it soon enough.

    Thanks for recommending "Poachers". I've read a couple of your individual story reviews from that book and it does sound great. I'll add it to my wish list! I was very impressed by his writing and am definitely looking forward to reading more.

  5. I read this with my book club too and we all loved it. We didn't think the dialect was really authentic and felt it was written the way it was to be more readable. For me, it showed small towns at their worst.

  6. Kathy,

    I think the dialect is more Alabama/Mississippi border and nothing close to what you'd experience farther east. It's pretty realistic to some of what I've heard around here (there are some pretty heavy accents) but I definitely think he wrote it to be readable. LOL Yep, I agree it shows small towns at their worst. But, again . . . pretty realistic. If you're an outcast, you're an outcast in a BIG way in a small, Southern town!

  7. Excellent review! I also loved the flipping of the racial perspective in this one!

  8. Jill,

    Thanks! It was a breath of fresh air the way he flipped that racial perspective, wasn't it?

  9. Anonymous9:29 PM

    Bobwire drove me batty for awhile! I couldn't figure out how it made it past the editors.

    Sometimes I'm a bit slow.

  10. Ms. Fizz,

    It took me a while, too. I really enjoyed the lightbulb moment when I realized what exactly the author was doing. But, it was also a bit of a *headdesk* feeling. ;)

  11. I have been seeing this around, but haven't had time to actually read it myself. I probably will at some point.

  12. Kelly,

    It might be a little bizarre to you, given the dialect, but I hope you do read it. It's so carefully, beautifully crafted -- the kind of book that makes other writers turn just a little green.

  13. I skipped your review. Maybe I'll suggest this one for our next club. (which is turning into a 100 book list at this moment and I still have a few months.)

  14. I loved this book, and thought that Franklin did a great job with conveying so many difficult emotions and situations. I felt so sorry for Larry, and was mad a t Silas for some of the time, but I find that the books that have me most engaged are the ones that I can get really invested in. Fantastic review on this one. It was a really amazing reading experience, and I enjoyed it a lot. I am glad to see that you did too!

  15. Care,

    Crooked Letter is an excellent discussion book. I hope you do end up reading it.


    I did, too. It's a very emotional read but it also is the kind of book that makes you ask yourself, "What would I do in this situation?" We talked about whether or not we'd even bother to stop to give Silas and his mother coats, for example. Some of the responses to that one really blew my mind. Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it as much as I did!

  16. So I was all excited to read the review and then I got to that red bit about potential spoilers and now I'm afraid! lol

    To read or not to read? LOL

    ♥ Melissa @ Melissa's Eclectic Bookshelf

  17. Melissa,

    Hmm, maybe flip a coin? LOL I don't think I gave too much away, but sometimes I just don't know. I didn't tell who done it, if that helps. ;)

  18. I've put it on hold - looks interesting.

  19. Carrie,

    It's interesting, all right. I think you'll appreciate Franklin's skilled writing, knowing your discerning taste. :)

  20. I loved this book! It will probably hit my Top Ten for 2011.

    You said, "Excellent story, astounding writing, perfect plotting . . . gosh. I think Tom Franklin should go to the head of the class and bow. Definitely one of the best books I've read, this year. Highly recommended."

    Yep. Couldn't agree with you more.

    I wrote:

    Fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, Mudbound and The Help are sure to fall in love with Franklin’s literary thriller. I could not put this book down! And I was shocked to see that I didn’t mark a single passage of this beautiful book. Perhaps I was too engrossed to stop and find a sticky note!

    But then I found this passage that I had to include in my review:

    Rather than his father's tall pitcher's physique and blond curls and dark skin and green eyes, Larry got Uncle Colin and his mother's olive skin and straight brown hair and brown eyes with long lashes which, attractive on women, made Larry and Uncle Colin soft and feminine, seat belt users who ate tilapia.

    Wow. I can't believe it's been almost a year since I read this. Seems like just a few months ago. It really sticks with you!

    And I'm very susceptible to nightmares, so I am definitely going to stay away from Hell at the Breech.

  21. Les,

    That's a great quote, if a bit horrifying (because Mississippians are notoriously bad about not using their seatbelts and we have a ridiculous traffic fatality rate -- probably because of that stubborn refusal to buckle up).

    I marked a few passages and was just thinking, tonight, that I ought to mention them, sometime. Maybe after Christmas season. Busy-busy things are getting in the way of blogging.

    I didn't know you were prone to nightmares, too. That surprises me, given some of the books you read. SuziQ recommends Franklin's Poachers, instead (short stories).

  22. I so wish that I enjoyed this one as much as everyone else did. I listened to it and wonder if maybe that's where I went wrong but as I was listening I was glad that I wasn't reading it as it's not something I'd generally read. However, I think I missed a lot of the great writing by listening (brain can't seem to wrap itself around the actual writing when I'm listening).

    Interesting what you say about the accents and vernacular. I've heard many southerners say they felt the language didn't feel authentic to them. Because I listened I thought it sounded very believable. Not sure what to think about Silas's non-midwestern accent, though. Huh.

  23. Trish,

    Well, it might just not be for you, but I would think it would be hard to listen to Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter because the rural accent is so heavy it can really get on your nerves. That's assuming it's done right. Done wrong, it would be even worse.

    I think probably most people who say the accent doesn't feel authentic have never been around people who live in rural Mississippi or Alabama. Honestly, it's hard to believe people actually talk that way till you hear it. I'll never get used to it. I'm at home, most of the time, and when I go out in public and hear the local accent I am *still* surprised. And, I've lived here most of my adult life!

  24. The title has to do with an old (I went to grade school 50 years ago) way to spell Mississippi and that would be M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-P-P-I.

    1. Yep, I knew the meaning of the title in regard to the name of the state. I just didn't understand how it applied to the content and judging from the answer from my friend John, I think the author just liked the sound of it. It really had nothing to do with what the book was about.


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