Crooked Letter, Crooked Letterby Tom Franklin
“The classic trifecta of talent, heart, and a bone-deep sense of storytelling….A masterful performance, deftly rendered and deeply satisfying. For days on end, I woke with this story on my mind.”
— David Wroblewski
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“The classic trifecta of talent, heart, and a bone-deep sense of storytelling….A masterful performance, deftly rendered and deeply satisfying. For days on end, I woke with this story on my mind.”
— David Wroblewski
“A new Tom Franklin novel is always a reason to get excited, but Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is more—a cause for celebration. What a great novel by a great novelist.”
A powerful and resonant novel from Tom Franklin—critically acclaimed author of Smonk and Hell at the Breech—Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter tells the riveting story of two boyhood friends, torn apart by circumstance, who are brought together again by a terrible crime in a small Mississippi town. An extraordinary novel that seamlessly blends elements of crime and Southern literary fiction, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a must for readers of Larry Brown, Pete Dexter, Ron Rash, and Dennis Lehane.
The Washington Post
There are murders in this Mississippi melodrama, but pay them no mind; its core is the brief friendship of two boys, one black, one white.
Larry Ott has been ostracized by the small town of Chabot for 25 years. Back in 1982, the white high-school student took his neighbor Cindy Walker out on a date. She was never seen again. The town assumed Larry had killed her, so though no body was found, no charges brought, Larry was punished. When the time came for Larry, a mechanic, to inherit his father's shop, he had no customers. He survived by selling off parcels of the family's woods to the timber company. Now, in 2007, another disappearance: the daughter of the company owner. While we're absorbing this, a masked intruder shoots Larry on his porch. He survives, thanks to quick thinking by his erstwhile friend Silas Jones, a black man and the town's only cop. Silas has been having a busy day: finding the decomposing body of a local drug dealer (not heard of again), removing a rattlesnake from a mailbox. These dramas share space with frequent flashbacks to the childhood of Larry and Silas. The result is a sluggish story, a surprise after Franklin's two hell-for-leather historicals (Smonk, 2006, etc.). Silas and his mother once lived in a hunting cabin in the Ott woods. Larry taught Silas how to hunt and fish until a racial slur ended their friendship. Turns out Silas was also involved in Cindy's disappearance, though absolutely not as her killer. There's no lack of mysteries here, and no lack of red flags either, but other mysteries—of character—go unexamined. Why hasn't Larry, instead of living like a zombie all these years, just left town? And why has Silas, after bigger assignments elsewhere, returned home to a nothing job?
There's little suspense in a novel that's most notable for its heavy-handed treatment of race.
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Crooked Letter, Crooked LetterA Novel
By Tom Franklin
Harper PerennialCopyright © 2011 Tom Franklin
All right reserved.
THE RUTHERFORD GIRL had been missing for eight days when
Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.
It'd stormed the night before over much of the Southeast, flash floods on
the news, trees snapped in half and pictures of trailer homes twisted apart.
Larry, forty-one years old and single, lived alone in rural Mississippi in his
parents' house, which was now his house, though he couldn't bring himself to
think of it that way. He acted more like a curator, keeping the rooms clean,
answering the mail and paying bills, turning on the television at the right
times and smiling with the laugh tracks, eating his McDonald's or Kentucky
Fried Chicken to what the networks presented him and then sitting on his
front porch as the day bled out of the trees across the field and night settled
in, each different, each the same.
It was early September. That morning he'd stood on the porch, holding
a cup of coffee, already sweating a little as he gazed out at the glistening front
yard, his muddy driveway, the barbwire fence, the sodden green field beyond
stabbed with thistle, goldenrod, blue salvia, and honeysuckle at the far edges,
where the woods began. It was a mile to his nearest neighbor and another to
the crossroads store, closed for years.
At the edge of the porch several ferns hung from the eave, his mother's
wind chime lodged in one like a flung puppet. He set his coffee on the rail
and went to disentangle the chime's slender pipes from the leaves.
Behind the house he rolled the barn doors open, a lawn mower wheel
installed at the bottom of each. He removed the burnt sardine can from the
tractor's smokestack and hung the can on its nail on the wall and climbed
on. In the metal seat he mashed the clutch with one foot and brake with the
other and knocked the old Ford out of gear and turned the key. The tractor,
like everything else, had been his father's, a Model 8-N with its fenders and
rounded hood painted gray but its engine and body fire-engine red. That
red engine caught now and he revved it a few times as the air around his
head blued with shreds of pleasant smoke. He backed out, raising the lift,
bouncing in the seat as the tractor's big wheels, each weighted with fifteen
gallons of water, rolled over the land. The Ford parted the weeds and wild
flowers and set off bumblebees and butterflies and soggy grasshoppers and
dragonflies, which his mother used to call snake doctors. The tractor threw
its long shadow toward the far fence and he turned and began to circle the
field, the privet cut back along the barbwire, the trees tall and lush, the south
end still shaded and dewy and cool. He bush-hogged twice a month from
March to July, but when the fall wildflowers came he let them grow. Migrating-
hummingbirds passed through in September, hovering around the blue
salvia, which they seemed to love, chasing one another away from the blooms.
At the chicken pen he shifted into reverse and backed up, lowering the
trailer hitch. He checked the sky shaking his head. More clouds shouldering
over the far trees and rain on the air. In the tack room he ladled feed and corn
into a plastic milk jug with the mouth widened, the brown pellets and dusty
yellow corn giving its faint earthy odor. He added a little grit, too, crushed
pebble, which helped the chickens digest. The original pen, which his father
had built as a Mother's Day gift somewhere back in Larry's memory, had
run twenty feet out for the length of the left side of the barn and adjoined a
room inside that had been converted to a roost. The new pen was different.
Larry had always felt bad that the hens lived their lives in the same tiny patch,
dirt in dry weather and mud in wet, especially when the field surrounding
his house, almost five acres, did nothing but grow weeds and lure bugs, and
what a shame the chickens couldn't feast. He'd tried letting a couple run free,
experiments, hoping they'd stay close and use the barn to roost, but the first
hen made for the far woods and got under the fence and was never seen
again. The next a quick victim of a bobcat. He'd pondered it and finally
constructed a scheme. On a summer weekend he'd built a head-high moveable
cage with an open floor and attached a set of lawn mower wheels to the
back end. He dismantled his father's fence and made his own to fit against the
outside door to the coop, so that when the chickens came out they came out in
his cage. Each morning he latched an interior door and, weather permitting,
used the tractor to pull the cage into the field, onto a different square of grass,
so the chickens got fresh foodinsects, vegetationand the droppings they
left didn't spoil the grass but fertilized it. The chickens sure liked it, and their
egg yolks had become nearly twice as yellow as they'd been before, and twice
He came outside with the feed. Storm clouds like a billowing mountain
loomed over the northernmost trees, already the wind picking up, the chime
singing from the porch. Better keep em in, he thought and went back in and
turned the wooden latch and entered the coop, its odor of droppings and warm
dust. He shut the door behind him, feathers settling around his shoes. Today
four of the wary brown hens sat in their plywood boxes, deep in pine straw.
"Good morning, ladies," he said and turned on the faucet over the old
tire, cut down the center like a donut sliced in half, and as it filled with water
he ducked through the door into the cage with the nonsetting hens following
like something caught in his wake, the tractor idling outside the wire.
He flung the feed out of the jug, watching for a moment as they pecked it
up with their robotic jerks, clucking, scratching, bobbing their heads among
the speckled droppings and wet feathers. He ducked back into the coop and
shooed the setting hens off and collected the brown eggs, flecked with feces,
and set them in a bucket. "Have a good day, ladies," he said, on his way out,
turning the spigot off, latching the door, hanging the jug on its nail. "We'll
try to go out tomorrow."
Back inside the house he blew his nose and washed his hands and shaved
at the bathroom mirror, the hall bathroom. He tapped the razor on the edge
of the sink, the whiskers peppered around the drain more gray than black,
and he knew if he stopped shaving his beard would be as gray as the beards
his father used to grow during hunting seasons thirty, thirty-five years before.
Larry had been chubby as a kid but now his face was lean, his brown hair short
but choppy as he cut it himself, had been doing so even before his mother had
gone into River Acres, a nursing home nowhere near a river and mostly full
of blacks, both the attendants and attended. He'd have preferred somewhere
better, but it was all he could afford. He splashed warm water on his cheeks
and with a bath rag swiped his reflection into the steamy mirror.
There he was. A mechanic, but only in theory. He operated a two-bay
shop on Highway 11 North, the crumbling white concrete block building with
green trim. He drove his father's red Ford pickup, an early 1970s model with
a board bed liner, a truck over thirty years old with only 56,000 miles and its
original six-cylinder and, except for a few windshields and headlights, most
of its factory parts. It had running boards and a toolbox on the back with his
wrenches and sockets and ratchets inside, in case he got a road call. There was
a gun rack in the back window that held his umbrellayou weren't allowed
to display firearms since 9/11. But even before that, because of his past, Larry
hadn't been allowed to own a gun.
In his bedroom, piled with paperbacks, he put on his uniform cap then
donned the green khaki pants and a matching cotton shirt with Larry in an
oval on his pocket, short sleeve this time of year. He wore black steel-toed
work shoes, a habit of his father's, also a mechanic. He fried half a pound of
bacon and scrambled the morning's eggs in the grease and opened a Coke
and ate watching the news. The Rutherford girl still missing. Eleven boys
dead in Baghdad. High school football scores.
He detached his cell phone from its charger, no calls, then slipped it into
his front pants pocket and picked up the novel he was reading and locked the
door behind him and carefully descended the wet steps and squished over the
grass to his truck. He got in, cranked the engine and reversed and headed out,
raindrops already spattering his windshield. At the end of his long driveway
he stopped at his mailbox, tilted on its post, a battered black shell with its door
and red flag long wrenched off. He cranked down his window and reached
inside. A package. He pulled it out, one of his book clubs. Several catalogs.
The phone bill. He tossed the mail on the seat beside him, shifted into drive
and pulled onto the highway. Soon he'd be at his garage cranking up the bay
door, dragging the garbage can out, opening the big back doors and positioning
the box fan there to circulate air. For a moment he'd stand in front by the
gas pumps, watching for cars, hoping one of the Mexicans across at the motel
would need a brake job or something. Then he'd go inside the office, prop
open the door, flip the closed sign to open, get a Coke from the machine in
the corner, and click the lid off in the bottle opener. He'd sit behind his desk
where he could see the road through the window, a car or two every half
hour. He'd open the low drawer on the left and prop his feet there and tear
into the package, see which books-of-the-month these would be.
BUT TWO HOURS later he was on his way back home. He'd gotten a call
on the cell phone. His mother was having a good day, she told him, and
wondered might he bring lunch.
"Yes, ma'am," he'd said.
In addition to lunch he wanted to get a photo albumone of the nurses,
the nice one, had told him those helped jog her memory, kept more of her
here, longer. If he hurried, he could get the album, go by Kentucky Fried
Chicken, and be there before noon.
He drove fast, unwise for him. The local police knew his truck and
watched him closely, often parking near the railroad tracks he passed daily.
He had few visitors, other than midnight teenagers banging by and turning
around in his yard, hooting and throwing beer bottles or firecrackers. And
Wallace Stringfellow of course, who was his only friend. But always unnerving
were the occasional visits, like yesterday, of Gerald County chief investigator
Roy French, search warrant in hand. "You understand, right," French
always said, tapping him on the chest with the paper. "I got to explore every
possibility. You're what we call a person of interest." Larry would nod and
step aside without reading the warrant and let him in, sit on his front porch
while French checked the drawers in the bedrooms, the laundry room by
the kitchen, closets, the attic, on his hands and knees beaming his flashlight
under the house, poking around in the barn, frightening the chickens. "You
understand," French usually repeated as he left.
And Larry did understand. If he'd been missing a daughter, he would
come here, too. He would go everywhere. He knew the worst thing must
be the waiting, not being able to do anything, while your girl was lost in the
woods or bound in somebody's closet, hung from the bar with her own red
Sure he understood.
He stopped in front of the porch and got out and left the truck door open.
He never wore his seat belt; his folks had never worn theirs. He hurried up
the steps and opened the screen door and held it with his foot as he found the
key and turned the lock and stepped into the room and noticed an open shoe
box on the table.
His chest went cold. He turned and saw the monster's face, knowing it
immediately for the mask it was, that he'd owned since he was a kid, that his
mother had hated, his father ridiculed, a gray zombie with bloody gashes and
fuzzy patches of hair and one plastic eye that dangled from strands of gore.
Whoever wore it now must have found the mask French never had, hidden
in Larry's closet.
Larry said, "What"
The man in the mask cut him off in a high voice. "Ever body knows what
you did." He raised a pistol.
Larry opened his hands and stepped back as the man came toward him
behind the pistol. "Wait," he said.
But he didn't get to deny abducting the Rutherford girl last week or Cindy
Walker twenty-five years ago, because the man stepped closer and jammed
the barrel against Larry's chest, Larry for a moment seeing human eyes in the
monster's face, something familiar in there. Then he heard the shot.
WHEN HE OPENED his eyes he lay on the floor looking at the ceiling.
His ears were ringing. His belly was quivering in his shirt and he'd bit his
lip. He turned his head, the monster smaller than he'd looked before, leaning
against the wall by the door, unable to catch his breath. He wore white cotton
gardening gloves and they were shaking, both the one with the pistol and the
"Die," he croaked.
Larry felt no pain, only blood, the heart that beat so rapidly pushing
more and more out, bright red lung blood he could smell. Something was
burning. He couldn't move his left arm but with his right hand touched his
chest, rising and falling, blood bubbling through his fingers and down his ribs in his shirt. He tasted copper on his tongue.
Excerpted from Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin Copyright © 2011 by Tom Franklin. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Meet the Author
Tom Franklin is the New York Times bestselling author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger Award. His previous works include Poachers, Hell at the Breech, and Smonk. He teaches in the University of Mississippi's MFA program.
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Larry and Silas were best friends. That is until color got in the way. No Larry and Silas didn't mind that Larry was white and Silas was black, but it seemed that everyone else did. Larry was a loner. He had few friends, and definitely no girlfriends. He liked to read, read, read. Silas was very athletic and had plans to be a baseball star. Then one day Larry is asked by a neighbor girl if he will take her to the movies. It is to be his first date. His father not only loans him the car but gives him the money for the movie. But Cindy was using him to get out of the house and away from her abusive step-father. He does exactly as Cindy asks him. Why because she lies to him. When she disappears he keeps her secret and becomes the town outcast. He is accused of raping and murdering her eventhough no body was ever found. Now another girl has gone missing. Larry has become their prime suspect. Silas is back in town as the new constable and avoids Larry for his own reasons. It isn't until Larry is shot, the young girl's body found on Larry's land that Silas remembers how Larry was at one time his friend and it is time he prove Larry's innocense. This means he will have to stop lying to himself and to the people of Chabot. This book was an accurate view of the discord between blacks and whites in the late 1970's and 1980's. It is also an accurate look at how we sometimes judge people and if they don't stand up for themselves then they get lost among the lies. I felt so sorry for Larry throughout this story. However, I wasn't real sure about the killer's identity until the end. The ending was spectacular. The author didn't try one of those, "okay we solved this crime and brought to light this lie so now we can tie a bow on it and everyone can live happily ever after". The author created an ending that was very believable and maybe left an opening for another book. I really enjoyed this book and can't wait to share it with others.
As a retired medical school professor I now have time to read all the fiction I wish and give each a star for my evaluation: 1 * for poor and 4 * for top score. Franklin's latest book is my first 4* this year (and will probably not give more than 3 or 4 for the year). His character development is excellent and his place setting description stellar--I speak as a resident Mississippian. He keeps the story moving without frenzy, but with completness. He speaks deeply into very moving and complex human characters whose emotions are obvious without psychobable. It would make a wonderful book club discussion. The language is clean. Most will thoroughly enjoy it. JLA1931
I happened across this book just browsing the B&N website. I am glad I did. This book is gripping from the start. The characters are so well written and the story effortlessly woven from past to present. I could not put it down and read it in one day. Although not a "happy ending" kind of book, the end satisfies fully. I would recommend this book to any fan of multilayered mysteries and fast paced thrillers. I am looking into other Tom Franklin reads and anxiously awaiting what he pens next.
CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER, by Tom Franklin Reviewed by Hana Gabrielle Packard This story had me with the first sentence! This is a fine multi-layered and fast-moving thriller but also has so much more in the way of life-lessons and emotional complexity. The excellently described 1970's background of old town Mississippi with all its southern draw and great character, the story is narrated by Larry and Silas, alternating vantage points and flashback to present. Ostracized by classmates because he was different, a stutterer, glasses wearer, subject to bloody noses, "Scary Larry" grew up and somehow remained a gentle soul. Things got better for him when he became fast friends with Silas, an African American boy growing up with only his single Mom who worked most of the time in order to support them. The friendship ended when Larry had a "first date" with a girl who suddenly disappears. Being forever suspect, Larry was yet again an outcast, viewed by all as "crazy" for twenty years. Silas returns twenty years later after having gone to college and built his career to become the town Constable. These twenty years later another girl disappears and so the story continues as friendships reunite and questions eventually get answered. This is a beautifully written, well-researched mystery / thriller that held me at tense-excited attention throughout. I loved it!
This book stands out as one of the best books I've read in a long time. Fantastic, held my interest, kept me guessing and I didn't want to put it down.
After the first few pages, I could not put this book down. Franklin is a master writer and I enjoyed this so much more than the last 3 Grisham books. The story is unique and not predictable. The title is a bit confusing, so I was glad to find the explanation by the author. I would definitely read other books by this author. I would recommend this book to most anyone who likes adventure, intrigue and good literature. I love the tender characters!!
In Chabot, Mississippi, Larry the bookworm loner and Silas "32" Jones the super baseball star became friends in high school in spite of their personality differences and the fact that the former is white and the latter black. When Cindy asks Larry to take her to the movies, he is excited with his first date. However, instead of a movie, Cindy used Larry to escape from her abusive step-father. When she vanishes, everyone accuses Larry of murder and probably rape though no proof exists. Two decades later, Silas is a local constable and Larry the mechanic remains the pariah. When Larry is shot, the Rutherford girl's body is found on his property. With memories of missing Cindy still lingering and the circumstantial evidence of the current homicide in spite of his bullet wound, Larry is more than just the prime suspect. Silas, who has avoided his former friend since coming home, knows he owes Larry his best effort on proving the outsider is innocent. This is an intriguing late twentieth century regional police procedural with a couple of strong late realistic twists. The story line is a character driven thriller; mostly by Larry who fails to confront the whisper campaign that has condemned him in Chabot. With a strong look at race relations in small town Mississippi in the 1970s and 1980s, readers will enjoy the strong saga of Larry and Silas. Harriet Klausner
So well written, a great, sad, bittersweet story. Just so enjoyable, you will not be disappointed.
Franklin does a great job of capturing and holding the reader's attention with this twisting tale of crime, friendship and commentary on society's tendency to play judge. Bonus: it is an easy read. Took me not even two afternoons to get through the whole story. Only complaint: it was a bit too predictable to solve the "who dunnit?" element. Overall, a great story with plenty of action.
Friendship, murder, and family tree
Tom Franklin's book reminds me of the classics written many years ago. The story turns the pages for you and the plot leaves you guessing throughout.
I only bought this book because it was recommended. I absolutely loved it! I am normally a Nora Roberts/Danielle Steel fan...but this book was really great! I am hoping his other reads are just as good!
I agree with comparison with To kill a mockingbird.
This book was a challenge to get into. In the beggining of the book it was hard to keep track of who was who, and to know in what year it happened. But about 1/4 of the way through the book everything clicked! Turned out to be a great read.
Was intense in some ways, but mostly just a great story. Not a lot of 4 letter words, which was refreshing. Recommend to all.
Loved this book - highly recommended!
"The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house." With the first sentence it's clear that CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER will be a humdinger of a thriller. What it takes two or three pages to realize is that not only is it a first-rate thriller, but also a beautiful, trenchant observation of rural Mississippi some 30 years ago. Tom Franklin's Southern dialogue is pinpoint perfection, his scenes painterly, bringing to our mind's eye Chabot, a small decaying town and its inhabitants, so vivid it is as if we were seeing everything and everyone in wide screen color. Yet it is the story that holds us as it is told through the eyes of Larry and Silas, alternating between the days of their youth and adulthood. As a boy Larry is a loner, ostracized and bullied by his classmates because all he does is read (Stephen King and other horror stories), belittled by his father, Carl, whom Larry understood to like "most everyone except him. From an early bout of stuttering, through a sickly, asthmatic childhood, through hay fever and allergies, frequent bloody noses, glasses he kept breaking, he'd inched into the shambling, stoop-shouldered pudginess of the dead uncles on his mother's side." Called "Scary Larry" by schoolmates he was not a pretty picture, yet he remained a gentle soul. Each night when his mother prayed with him at bedtime she asked for a friend for Larry, someone just for him. And then then an unlikely friend appeared - Silas, an African-American son of a poor single mother who worked two jobs. Their friendship was brief, just a few months, ending when Larry had his first date. He took a girl to a drive-in movie, and she apparently disappeared. Of course, Larry is seen as her abductor, perhaps a murderer. But, no body is found. Larry simply exists in a lonely state, an outcast, seen by all as a crazy man for over 20 years. After that length of time Silas returns to Chabot as a constable. He is aware that Larry comes to the garage he runs every day, although there are never any customers. Silas ignores him until the night a monster visited Larry's house and said, "Ever body knows what you did." Silas is now forced to remember what he has tried so hard to forget. This is a story of friendship reclaimed, atonement, and the devastation wrought by bigotry. Tom Franklin has crafted an unforgettable novel, one that resonates with truth of place and character. CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER will not be forgotten. - Gail Cooke
If you come this far you probably know that on the surface this is a murder mystery. But it is so much more, it's a peek at the rural south, of friendship, of the awkwardness of growing up. A must read!
The story is a little predictable, but the author's talent for painting pictures draws you into the story. You feel like you are there in Southern Mississippi and you can see, smell, hear, and taste everything the author describes. The characters are fleshed out perfectly and you become attached to each of them in different ways. Despite being slightly predictable, the author's talent is something to behold. I highly recommend taking the time to read this one!
This book is truly amazing. The interaction of the two main characters and their mutual history as it is revealed in this book is done in such a gripping manner that you will not want to put this book down. The ending is totally unexpected but rewarding. A rarity in a book of this type,is how complete I became absorbed by these two men. This was a book that I could not put down. Mr. Franklin, I eagerly await your next book.
I read a lot of books, all different types, and I must admit that it's been a couple years since I read a book that haunted me. You won't be able to stop thinking about Larry long after you've finished the last page. If you're looking for a book that really gets into your heart, this is the book.
I love all of Tom Franklin's work. The characters are real and you will end up caring deeply about them. I could not read it fast enough to see how it ended and I do not say that about many books at all. A very good use of your time.
Couldn't put it down.
This novel had a little bit of everything you would expect to read about in the South in this time period.