2010, William Morrow
Filed under: Mystery
|C4 Ratings.....out of||10|
We can be sure of one thing: the publishing industry knows how to make a cover. Merely from the cover at right (key features: blended colors, artsy photo, small type, lower-case letters in title), I predicted that Crooked Letter would be well-written but plot-deficient, and that’s exactly what it is.
It’s very, very well-written, and it’s definitely my favorite of the Edgar novels I’ve read so far. Franklin’s greatest strength is his prose; you feel that he’s in complete control of his narrative.
The problem comes when that narrative doesn’t have anywhere to go.
Crooked Letter follows Silas “32″ Jones (a black constable stationed in Chabot, Miss., the rural town where he grew up) and Larry Ott (a white mechanic who’s believed to be a murderer).
Twenty-something years ago, a local girl disappeared after going on a date with Larry, and because he was the last person to see her, Larry was suspected of raping and murdering her. He was never convicted, but the townspeople took it upon themselves to make Larry’s life a living hell for the next few decades. When another girl disappears in Chabot, suspicion falls once more on Larry—Silas, who believes Larry is innocent, investigates to clear his name.
The decades-long relationship (not friendship) between these two men drives the story, and it’s the atmosphere, both geographical and emotional, that ranks over the mystery on the marquee. Franklin renders Mississippi vividly, with his keen ear for Southern dialect and his charitable, but not blind, disposition. He does not ignore the state’s vicious strain of racism, but there’s a complexity in his portrayal that makes for great characterization.
The racist white characters—and there are plenty—don’t blindly or boisterously hate black people, they only occasionally expose those darkest, weakest parts of themselves. Franklin has a stance to take (when Silas and Larry get into a fight, Larry desperately uses the n-word and their friendship is never the same), but he doesn’t turn those racist white people into caricatures. In other words, he doesn’t oversimplify his villains, the way many writers do, to the detriment of their narratives.
Then there’s the prose, which singlehandedly makes this a book worth reading. The narrative alternates between Larry’s and Silas’s perspective, and Franklin peppers it so thoroughly with regional flavor that the narrative itself takes on the earthy country feel of its setting. Here’s an example of this writing:
In the woods, if you stopped, if you grew still, you’d hear a whole new set of sounds, wind rasping through silhouetted leaves and the cries and chatter of blue jays and brown thrashers and redbirds and sparrows, the calling of crows and hawks, squirrels barking, frogs burping, the far baying of dogs, armadillos snorkeling through dead leaves … He found he’d never seen real darkness, not in the city, but how, if you stood peeing off the cabin porch on a moonless night, or took a walk through the woods where the treetops stitched out the stars, you could almost forget you were there, you felt invisible. Country dark, his mother called it.
And here’s an example of Franklin’s outstanding Southern dialogue:
“This one was a machinist. He’d come fetch us for the weekends. That fat sumbitch—I can’t even remember his name now—he didn’t go to church but Momma always did, no matter where the man she’s seeing lived she’d haul my sleepy ass off the couch and borry his car and drag me to whichever church it was, Baptist she could find it but we’d try a Methodist, too, in a pinch.”
It’s a strong, unobtrusive style, and it’s transporting in the way only good books can be.
Tally then: complex characters, excellent writing, and solid thrills… what’s the problem? Well, it’s Franklin’s tiresome premise, the case that dredges up painful, embarrassing secrets. Too often a plot twist or a major revelation is instigated by a character finally mentioning what he’s know for a long time, sometimes for years. From the novel’s beginning, there’s little that Silas and Larry don’t collectively know about that first disappearance, and it’s a drag to have the core mystery rely on dudes not talking.
While dishonesty is intrinsic to a quality mystery, main characters cannot hold secrets from we readers, because that feels like the author holding secrets from us, and that feels like a trick. (Because it is a trick.)
Luckily, that trick doesn’t ruin this particular novel. In fact, it’s the only thing keeping Crooked Letter from being truly great.
Similar reads: Caught, by Harlan Coben, for a similar wrongfully-accused premise; Faithful Place, by Tana French, for a similar detective-must-dredge-up-past plot; The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Stieg Larsson, for similar plot problems. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is the best of these. Dark Places also plays with these elements, but makes for a better mystery than Crooked Letter.
Edgar impact: As a novel, I would rank Crooked Letter above the field so far, and it’s in the top three or four Edgar novels I’ve read this year or last. However, because it revolves around such a weak mystery, it does lose a few points. There’s no truly deserving winner yet.