It’s been a bit since I’ve read a thriller, but Tom Franklin’s CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER reminded me how much I love a good literary thriller. Published in 2010, CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER is haunting and heartbreaking in its cutting realities and unapologetic portrayal of racism and classism in the rural South.
If the title didn’t give it away, the novel is set in Mississippi. (M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I) The novel travels across decades effortlessly, the lives of Silas and Larry weaving in and out and oft
Silas “32” Jones was born to a single mother. He’d grown up in Chicago, but an incident with one of his mama’s boyfriends has them running back to Mississippi, where she said she knew people. Silas would eventually learn the “people” she knew was the white Ott family.
Larry Ott was born to a doting mother and a father who drank too much and wished his son liked sports more than the books he toted around.
The boys first meet when Larry’s father stops to pick up Silas and his mother. It’s cold, and they ride with them into town. Every morning. Every morning until Larry mentions it to his mother. The next day, his mother takes him to school. Silas and his mother were waiting as usual, his mother handed them used jackets and angrily addressed Silas’s mother. The pair never rode with his father again. And his father never forgave him for telling his mother.
The unlikely pair begin a secret friendship. It was the ‘70s in southern Mississippi, so it had to be secret. They didn’t hang out at school. They didn’t bring each other into their respective homes unless no one else was home. Society simply wouldn’t approve, but the boys were friends – each learning from the other.
As teenagers, their relationship is destroyed by Larry’s father. Silas had stood up to a friend of Larry’s dad who was sexually assaulting his stepdaughter, much to Mr. Ott’s drunken delight. Larry had hidden, but his father had seen him. He followed his son when he went to see Silas and forced the two boys to fight. Larry was torn between the only friend he’d ever had and the father he wanted so desperately to please. Fisticuffs ensuedwithout much heart, until Larry uttered the slur that would sever the friendship. There are some words you can’t walk back from.
Sometime not long after, Larry takes the girl Silas had been protecting on a date to a drive-in and she’s never seen again. There’s no evidence, no charge, no conviction. But the town judges him all the same. Larry Ott’s life is destroyed, and Silas Jones doesn’t look back.
Now it’s decades later. Silas is back in town as the constable, and another girl is missing. Larry is the prime suspect.
“The only ghosts here knew the secrets already.”
And the secrets are as crooked as the letter.