Review: Tom Franklin – Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

I’ve been calling Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter ‘the bloggers book’ because it ended up on my reading list simply because of the quality of the reviews by fellow crime fiction reviewers. The fact that the book won the CWA Gold Dagger Award this year had completely passed me by and it wasn’t until I read rave reviews by Maxine at Petrona and Bernadette at Reactions to Readingand at that I bought it. I have a chequered history when it come to books that everyone has raved about as so often I have unreasonably high expectations (I am still waiting to find the ultimate crime novel). Meanwhile, Keishon at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog  published a less than glowing review and my interest was really piqued. I don’t normally start my reviews with a precis of other blogger’s opinions. But this book divided the critics so decisively I think I should say upfront that I definitely read it with a more critical eye than I would otherwise have done.

The first thing that struck me was that it is a very well written book. There is a beauty in excellent writing that seems to pull the reader into the narrative and I was drawn to the story of Larry Ott and Silas Jones, childhood friends whose lives take different paths. In essence, the book is a story of the entwining of the two men’s lives with the backdrop of the mysterious disappearance of two teenage girls decades apart.

Secondly the setting of the story is wonderful. I love descriptions of the deep American south and this book is no exception with its passages evoking a unique countryside of rattlesnakes and deserted barns, dusty roads and small town entertainment. The book also works well as a social history of the area. The passages dealing with the underlying racism prevalent as the boys were growing up are lightly written with small vignettes to expose the small indignities that the black population had to endure.

There were some small things around plotting that I found irritating. Given the focus on the relationship between the two men, I felt that the murders of the young women got lost. I have mixed feelings about this because I prefer in crime fiction for the victim to remain at the forefront of the narrative. Although the second murder is resolved satisfactorily, the murder of the teenage Cindy twenty-five years earlier seems to be left deliberately vague. This lack of resolution is all the more strange as there is a strong redemptive element to the narrative where the fractured relationship between the two men begins to heal.

It’s ultimately a sad tale and I find it interesting that this sadness, so far from the tone of other US crime writing that I have recently read, has been so widely praised. I suspect the book is a truly one-off and will stay with me for some time.

13 thoughts on “Review: Tom Franklin – Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

  1. Keishon

    Hi Sarah,

    I definitely agree here:

    I felt that the murders of the young women got lost. I have mixed feelings about this because I prefer in crime fiction for the victim to remain at the forefront of the narrative. Although the second murder is resolved satisfactorily, the murder of the teenage Cindy twenty-five years earlier seems to be left deliberately vague. This lack of resolution is all the more strange as there is a strong redemptive element to the narrative where the fractured relationship between the two men begins to heal.

    The crimes of the two women were more of an afterthought. The central focus to me was the relationship between the two men and the redemption of past wrongs by Silas and others in their treatment of Larry. Kudos to the author for the writing but that storyline just did not work for me. Great review.


    1. Thanks Keishon and it’s interesting that people get different things from this book. Your review picked up too on the lack of resolution for the second murder. I guess this wasn’t the focus of the book.


  2. I can’t imagine that the murders of the two women were an afterthought for the author – he seems too clever to allow such a thing. For me it was more that the murders allowed the writer to examine the relationship between the two men with the aim of making this a crime novel not “just” about a horrible crime – but then we could argue that if handled badly that could cheapen the killings.
    Eeek, I think I’ve almost talked myself around. Anywho – this was one of my faves of the year.

    Sarah, have you read The End of Everything by Megan Abbott?


    1. Thanks Michael – the book has won plenty of plaudits. I look forward to seeing it in your favourite reads of 2011. And no, I’ve not read any Megan Abbott. Would you recommend her book?


  3. I think that is a very good point about the victims being at the forefront, a point that I hadn’t explicitly considered when I read/reviewed the book. I think this point is one reason I really love Michael Connelly’s books, for example.

    Your point has made me think along these lines: in much of modern crime fiction, particularly US bestsellers, the emphasis is on the victim in a different way, the “victim as entertainment”, either in the serial killer genre, which is usually about several young women being killed and/or tortured in various voyeuristic ways; or in the pathological genre, in which the autopsy/post mortem is part of that same “objectifying the victim for entertainment” process. I really hate reading so many blog posts and other reviews that are so enthusiastic about the latest in these what I call crap genres. I just don’t get why people enjoy the detailed descriptions of pain and suffering (usually women and often written by them as well as by men). Clearly they do, but it beats me.

    Perhaps this is one reason Tom Franklin did not take the avenue of describing the young women’s lives, deaths and police investigations surrounding them? He did not, to me, seem at all interested in the “crime” plot aspects, for example there was no suspense in knowing the identity of the criminal in the second case, he just wanders into the plot and is clearly signposted. The suspense is in seeing if Larry survives, or finds out what happened to him (and who attacked him) even though the reader already knows the answer.

    this is all a bit rambly, but in sum, I agree with your point about victims but equally I was grateful to read a good crime novel, particularly from the US, that did the opposite of dwell on the mode or aftermath of the deaths.


    1. Thanks Maxine for your comments. As soon as I had written the paragraph about the focus on the victim, I wondered whether to put in the caveat that you mention. That the focus on the victim should not be gratuitous. I hadn’t thought about the pathological genre you mentioned although of course you are right. I do like the victim to be kept in focus but this is usually alongside the character of the invesitgator. As you say, this is a different type of book and the focus was on neither victim nor as such the investigator rather the relationship between the two men.

      I am yet to approach Michael Connelly but am definitely going to give him a go. You have a great way with words – there are indeed crap genres out there. I could add a few more examples of this.


  4. I am always glad when someone likes a book I have recommended, I feel guilty when it goes the other way

    as for the issue of the victims being at the centre of the story I agree they were not here but Itdid not trouble me in this instance. I always think of these kind of stories as a kind of multi dimensional universe and the author just chose to focus on one dimension. The thing is I know this kind of thing has annoyed me in other books so I’m not entirely sure why it did not do so here…I think perhaps it has something to do with this not really being crime fiction in my mind so therefore the crime and its poor victims did not have to be at the centre of things.

    This is a rambly comment, have not had my coffee yet 🙂


    1. Even if I hadn’t enjoyed it Bernadette I think recommendations are a good place to start, especially by fellow crime readers. As I have mentioned before though my wish list (before it gets on my TBR pile) is getting bigger and bigger.
      And, your comment isn’t rambly – and you’re right that this book really isn’t crime fiction as we know it.


  5. kathy d.

    I loved this book and put it high up on my list of favorite mysteries. It wasn’t only that though, as it was a novel about racism and poverty, about friendships lost and found, about the damage racism can do to human relationships and so much more, with subtleties woven through.
    It was a novel about the human condition, in my view. And I think it should be part of high school curricula, as not only a way of teaching about good writing, but as part of human relations and developing empathy for each other, breaking down barriers to understanding.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.