Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have not read too many books about the Deep South region of the United States. The last time I had been so engrossed in a Deep South novel was over 40 years ago, when I was reading "Absalom, Absalom" and other books by Faulkner. Clearly, Tom Franklin's "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" is not in the same category as Faulkner's masterpiece. The writing is not as breathtakingly spectacular and I do not think it was Mr. Franklin's intention to create an all-encompassing, universal study of human existence. Also, I believe I can detect a well-intentioned manipulation by the author to make the novel easier to like, particularly when compared with Faulkner's uncompromising, all-or-nothing approach. Yet, it is a very good book, and all its nominations and awards (LA Times Book Prize, Edgar Award nomination, among others) are well deserved.
Two disappearances/murders of young women in a very small Mississippi town provide the framework for the plot. The two cases are separated by 25 years, and the narration alternates between the past and the present. Not only do we have two cases and two different eras, but also there are two protagonists, Larry and Silas, of two different colors of skin. Of course racial issues play a major role in the plot, and to the extent of my limited experience, Mr. Franklin does a great job in presenting the tensions in a gentle, almost understated way. But I think the racial problem is not really what the novel is about. To me, the book is mainly a "coming of age" study and its central question is how the events and decisions in someone's youth shape their adulthood and that of the others.
"Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" is one of the saddest book I have read in a long time. It is filled with sadness of passage of time, life chances missed, hopes dashed, parents long gone. Mr. Franklin writes very well and the novel contains several powerful scenes, such as the heart-wrenching description of how Silas' mother, Alice Jones, traveled with him from Chicago to rural Mississippi.
What I don't particularly like about the book is that the author uses non-linearity of plot time to manipulate the reader's insight into the mystery. My guess is that if the novel were written without any jumps in time, it would still be as powerful as it is now, but then it would not be a mystery book any more. It would have to be judged by criteria of "real literature". It would pass these criteria fine, but not as spectacularly as being "just" a mystery.
Four and a half stars.
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