“No real person is a stereotype.”
An interesting statement, courtesy of writer Tom Franklin. “We’re all a mess of contradictions and secrets, strangenesses and desires, and nobody’s all good or all bad,” he adds (interview on his Amazon page). “We’re all somewhere in the spectrum between absolute good and absolute evil. So I just try to find a character who’s fairly normal, and put him or her in a fix…”
They are in abundance at the outset of “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” and it’s certainly easy to think that we are about to fly down the road of a well-paced mystery set in the evocative Deep South.
The opening sections are stunning. A missing child. A dead body. Mosquitoes buzzing and “all the flies a world could need.” Buzzards circle, sweat drips. A cop calls for help on his radio.
We know the drill (and we like it).
Get the cop on the trail, sort through the good leads and the bad ones, corner the bad guy, put our hero through a few emotional paces, and make us feel like the world is safe again. Right?
Well, no. From the whodunit start of “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” Franklin excavates a full-blown novel with classic themes—bullying, hatred, racism, lies, secrets and family ties.
I won’t type “spoiler alert” here in capital letters and attempt to warn you not to peek at some key plot point, but even casual mystery readers will recognize that Franklin introduces us early on to the bad guy, a good-old-Southern-boy who is ripe with arrogance and plenty dangerous. There really aren’t that many characters that float through “Crooked Letter” so when the bad guy comes along, he’s fairly easy to spot.
Readers looking for a typical mystery arc will be disappointed—the bad guy is captured near the end but there’s still a long wind-out about the relationship between the black constable, Silas “32” Jones, and his former childhood friend Larry Ott, who is white and who spent his youth being tormented and bullied for his lonely, book-centered ways. Silas is the one who goes off to college and returns. “He’d thought this job would be different. Constable, the Internet ad had said, of a hamlet. He’d had to look up constable and hamlet, but he liked both words and the job had promised police work, flexible hours, a vehicle.”
Larry stays home, the peculiar auto mechanic who lives on the fringes of society, in a house crammed with more horror books and books of all kinds than in the “rest of the county combined.”
“Everything Larry couldn’t do—spike a volleyball, throw a football or catch one, field a grounder, fire a dodgeball—these black boys could. Did. They manipulated balls as if by magic, basketballs swishing impossibly, baseballs swiped out of the air, fierce-eyed boys hurling and curving through their lives as smoothly as boomerangs. None read, though, or understood Larry’s love for books. “
The novels flips back and forth easily between the present and the incidents from 25 years ago, when Larry was tangled up in the case of a missing high school girl. It’s in the early scenes that Franklin builds the bonds between these two—bonds that struggle to stay in place against society norms and parents with a different idea about how the world works.
The strength of the book lies in the characters, moving away from the stereotypes. Franklin cares more about his two main characters, Silas and Larry, than the intricacies of the plot or holding information back from readers. We are allowed deep into Larry’s world and Silas’s too.
Yes, one big secret is revealed late in the story (and this fits neatly with the mystery genre). Because of characters are strong (and unique), the revelation works. “Here it all came. A quarter century bunching up on him, bearing down, a truck slamming on its brakes and its log sliding forward, over the cab, through the window, the back of his head, shooting past him in the road.”
When it comes, we feel that moment too—all quarter century of it. Stereotypes shed, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” is full of real people. Mystery novel? Maybe on some levels. But mostly, this is just highly readable and quite memorable high-quality fiction. Check your “mystery” expectations at the door.