The plot of Tom Franklin’s latest novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is irresistible. Mississippians Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones enjoy a brief boyhood friendship, but drift apart due to the complications that arise from the difference in their races: Larry is white; Silas is black. However, their fates intertwine when a local girl goes missing after Larry takes her out on a date. Without a body or a confession, Larry is never brought to trial; however, the vigilante tendencies of his small Mississippi community prohibit him from enjoying any sense of innocence. Conversely, the adolescent Silas relishes success in baseball and is rewarded with a scholarship to Ole Miss. Years later, then, when another young girl disappears, Larry is again the prime suspect. However, secrets from the past are slowly uncovered as now-Constable Jones works on the new case.
Franklin’s mystery in the South is both rich with imagery and characterization and compulsively readable. Most interesting to dissect, however, is the theme of justice that permeates the lives of central characters Larry and Silas. As the mystery unfolds – and this is no spoiler – Larry’s legal innocence becomes increasingly clear. However, the concentrated microcosm of Chabot, Mississippi, continues to ostracize him, destroying his property and barring him from the local Methodist church. The cruelty committed against Larry is appalling and the reader constantly wonders (and hopes) that the communal wrong done to Larry will be put right.
Living a parallel, but disparate, life is Silas, Chabot, Mississippi’s local baseball hero. In adulthood, as town constable, Silas is in the profession justice, administering it to the criminals he encounters daily. However, as the story unfolds, Silas’s sense of justice comes deeply into question. The unexamined role he played in the murder from his childhood and his role as investigator during the present-day murder both examine Silas’s integrity and question his own receipt of justice.
One of the most memorable aspects of Franklin’s novel is its unique title: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Referring to the mnemonic method of teaching schoolchildren to spell Mississippi: “M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I”, the novel’s title refers directly to idea of education in the South. Both Larry and Silas, and really all characters in the novel, are taught to take much of what they encounter at face value, e.g. the idea that a man with white skin is superior while a man with black skin is inferior is constantly reinforced. Therefore, the haste the townspeople exhibit in ostracizing the outcast Larry comes with little surprise. However, through the twists and turns of the novel’s plot, Franklin argues emphatically that this method of thinking is deeply flawed.
Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is at the forefront a mystery, but under the surface an examination of personal justice and modern-day race relations as well. Franklin’s wonderfully realized characters will reel you into their lives and the deep messages they represent will prohibit you from forgetting them. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is an interesting read, and one that many will enjoy.