Larry Ott was a loser, an awkward child growing up, a horror-addicted bookworm disappointment to his garage-owning father. Not athletic or handy with tools, certainly inept with girls, he possessed none of the currencies of manhood in rural Mississippi. One night, Larry went out on a date, and the girl disappeared, and was never found. Ostracised, his father’s garage lost its business and Larry went away, only to return eventually to Chabot, where he runs his father’s empty garage, drives his father’s truck, and lives in his parents’ house, reading and alone.
Silas Jones was, at one point, Larry’s only friend. Only Silas was black, living with his mother in a cabin on the outskirts of the Ott’s land. But their friendship foundered after a fight, and Silas went on to be a baseball star, and returned to Chabot to be the town’s constable. Now, years later, another teenaged girl has gone missing, Silas is investigating, and Larry, inevitably is the number one suspect.
It is a wonderful, if not unusual set up, but what makes Tom Franklin’s first crime novel (after the admirable Civil War tale Hell At The Breech) is the quality of the story-telling and characterisation. Franklin actually name-checks Stephen King in there, but this story has much more in common with the Southern traditions of Flannery O’Connor or Carson McCullers, the novels of writers like Pete Dexter or Michael Malone. This is the south of traditional American literature, the Faulknerian south, but told with a modern sensibility that reflects the massive changes since the days of Faulkner or McCullers, but also the unchanging realities beneath those changes. There is a sense that the traditions of Southern gothic were maintained in the style known as ‘dirty realism’, the writing-workshop stories that make working people the horror-creatures, their brand-named accessories props that signal a sub-human essence. In effect, that style was ironic comment on Stephen King, and what Franklin does without ever striking a wrong note is to reclaim the materials of Southern gothic for real characters, straightforward as King, but in the end much closer to Daniel Woodrell, just a few hundred miles east.
If this all sounds like great praise, that’s how it’s intended. Larry Ott’s character is built with overwhelming compassion, but with just enough distance to allow us to consider the awful possibilities. The weaving of past and present is deft, and of course the secrets that lay hidden, while somewhat obvious to the careful reader, are delivered with a moving sensitivity that gives them the space to work. All the while, the reality of growing up in Mississippi, the ‘crooked letter’ spelling of which provides the book’s title, and the reality of living there now are both sketched out in great and subtle depth. It is one of those stories that wraps you in its setting, ties you to its characters, and imprisons you until its end. One of the best books of the year, whatever else happens in the next 10 months.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
by Tom Franklin
Macmillan £11.99 ISBN 9780230753051
This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets (http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com)