Sunday, December 26, 2010

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

As I was saying, I received a slew of crime novels and true-crime books submitted for the Hammett Prize 2011 for ‘literary excellence’ given each year by the International Association of Crime Writers/ North American Branch. I must now upgrade the total to 193. I mention the number because my wife does, over and over. She does this in making the point that I should not delude myself that I might keep them (hard-covers only, of course), stuffing them onto the groaning shelves of the bookcases on the three floors of our row-house in historic Downtown Albany. She has a point.

In taking this insensitive tone, my Rose turns a deaf ear (though all-seeing eye, I admit) to my claim to Bibliophile status. Not some ethereal lover, I must possess my books, fondle them, weigh their heft, gloat over the sewn bindings; swaddle them, front to back, in Bro-Dart plastic dust covers. “It’s me or the books,” she says. No contest…

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (HarperCollins Pub.) opens in a rural Mississippi Town. We’re in the point-of-view of 41-year-old Larry Ott, a mechanic living a solitary existence on the family farm, his only company a coop full of chickens named after the wives of U.S. presidents. As a teenager, he took a girl to a drive-in movie and she was never heard from again. He was never charged but always suspected in her disappearance. Twenty years have passed, it is now the late 1990s, and another young girl is missing. Silas “32” Jones, his only boyhood friend, is the Town Constable, a black man, a former high school baseball star, with a secret from the past that binds them still. Chapter two is in the point-of-view of Silas.

The first chapter is beautifully constructed, not only setting the story in rapid motion but, in the best tradition of fair-plotting, contains the seeds of the ending. ‘Ghosts’—here the protagonists’ past history—inform present action: a characteristic of the very best crime fiction being written. I’m thinking, particularly, of the novels of T. Jefferson Parker whose Iron River is a stand-out this year, and in past years Dennis Lehane’s unforgettable Mystic River and Don Winslow’s terrific Power of the Dog, to name just a few.

Tom Franklin is a poet in prose (a literary cousin to James Lee Burke), particularly in describing:

“Later he caboosed the procession to a graveyard miles out in the country, whites only buried there, lovely landscaped grounds, shaded by live oaks with Spanish moss slanted in the wind like beards of dead generals. Nothing like the wooded cemetery where Alice Jones lay under a little rock on the side of a hill eaten up with kudzu, the plastic flowers blown over and strewn by the wind…”

And this:

“Her breasts were little things under her top; he kept trying not to look at them. She had a concave figure, walking with a little hook to her, her belly in, as if waiting to absorb a blow. Today she wore sandals, and he liked her white freckled feet and red toenails…”

I wish I’d written that.

The thing about Franklin’s style, the metaphors, is, of course, their startling originality. They’re unself-conscious, call no attention to themselves, just suddenly in your face. His images are always earthbound, earthy, instantly seen in the mind’s eye.

We read mysteries because we can count on being taken out of ourselves, dropped into another world. Our best authors make that world vividly dense. Franklin does that for rural, small town Mississippi in the late 1970’s and late 1990’s. Interestingly, the racial divide of that time is painted in muted tones, simply as background and setting for the story he’s telling: very effective, very moving. Franklin describes Crooked Letter as "hopeful" compared to his other two novels: the first, Hell at the Breech, is a murder mystery set in a rural area of Franklin's native Alabama in 1897; His second, Smonk, a very atypical western set in Old Texas, Alabama, in 1911.

The book’s title? You may remember it from grammar school:

“M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I
Crooked letter-crooked letter-I

Don’t miss this one. Franklin won an Edgar a few years back for his debut collection of short stories: Poachers.

Next week, let’s talk about T. Jefferson Parker’s Iron River, where the ATF task force cops patrol the “iron river”, the flow of guns from U.S. dealers to Mexican drug cartels. Meet the ‘Zetas’. Very bad, very Noir.

Robert Knightly


  1. Robert, I downloaded the first chapter. It is captivating. I am buying the book for my brother, but I may have to read it before I give it to him. THANKS for this introduction. I look forward to the others.

  2. This is a well written book that holds your interest to the end. It offers insight into the challenges faced by these young boys and how they coped without having guidance that surely would have changed the circumstances of this story. Well worth reading.