Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is the best mystery we’ve read in years. Larry Ott and Silas “32″ Jones were unlikely childhood friends — Larry a middle-class white, Silas a poor black — in small town Mississippi. Their friendship ends when Larry’s date to a drive-in movie goes missing. The evidence is inconclusive and Larry is never charged with her disappearance and presumed murder, but a dark cloud follows him, hovering over his solitary life as a mechanic. Some twenty years later, another girl goes missing; Larry is once again a suspect. The man on the case is Chabot, Mississippi’s lone constable and prodigal son — Silas Jones. After decades of silence, the two are reunited, and the past comes to light.
Tom Franklin’s superior novel is many things at once: a crime story, a meditation on race, and a literary novel in the great Southern tradition — think To Kill A Mockingbird with a nasty Elmore Leonard streak. The secrets in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (the title comes from “how southern children are taught to spell Mississippi”) are buried deep, but they all make their way out: what happened on the night Larry took Cindy Walker to the drive-in; how Larry and Silas met; the complicated relationship between their families; the circumstances surrounding the second missing girl; and who, in the book’s opening chapter, is wearing a monster mask and hiding in Larry’s house, waiting for Larry to come home to shoot him. In the moment this stranger presses a gun to Larry’s chest, Franklin observes “Larry for a moment seeing human eyes in the monster’s face, something familiar in there.” Is that familiar in that Larry recognizes his would-be killer, or familiar in that Larry knows what it is to kill?
Franklin parcels out the answers patiently, sweeping from present to past with a storyteller’s consummate skill. One of the biggest revelations, involving Larry and Silas’s past, comes early — some might argue prematurely — but it does nothing to diminish the novel’s suspense. We’d argue that it heightens the tension. Crooked Letter’s mysteries are as much of the human condition as they are the twists and turns of a procedural. Even after we learn the truth about the missing girls and Larry’s shooter, there remains greater, unanswered questions — Can we escape the past? Will the South ever heal from its racial wounds? Why does fate favor one son over another? — that linger and provoke.