I don’t usually read a lot of crime fiction. It’s not that I have anything against crime, I just like to wait until I find a superlative example of the genre. I love books like Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy. It’s just that so many crime authors have about twenty books to their name, often featuring the author’s signature protagonist, in the same setting time after time. It doesn’t inspire hope in me that any of them will be original or unique. So after finding Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter on a couple of best crime books of 2011 lists it seemed like a good book to start my quest for an exceptional crime offering.

In the small town of Chabot, Mississippi college student Tina Rutherford has gone missing, reminding everyone of the decades-earlier disappearance of teenager Cindy Walker. The number one suspect in the Walker case was, then-teenager, Larry Ott. Now a grown man, Larry was never arrested but has lived his life as a recluse, shunned by a town that never stopped believing he was guilty. The townspeople and local law enforcement are quick to assume that Larry is behind Tina’s disappearance as well, even when Larry is found shot in his home. As Silas Jones, Constable of Chabot, investigates the missing girl and Larry’s shooting both men remember their childhood friendship and the secrets they’ve both kept all these years.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter revolves around the past and its impact on the present. There’s nostalgia for a time before Cindy’s disappearance, before youthful choices came to define Silas and Larry’s lives. But even that childhood innocence was tainted by the lives of adults around them. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a brilliant meditation on courage and weakness, and the way memories are twisted by time. Franklin explores regret, isolation and shame through his elegiac portrait of Mississippi and the friendship between two boys, one black, and one white: headstrong, independent Silas and lonely, bookish Larry.

If you’re expecting an action-packed crime thriller you’ll probably be disappointed. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a more nuanced work, the mystery crackles quietly but intensely. I was impressed by the depth of emotion Franklin brings to the story. It’s far more than your average crime novel. Yes, murder and kidnapping serve as the impetus behind the plot but Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter never feels confined or defined by its genre trappings. The pacing is excellent. Strands of narrative gradually come together, and relationships are revealed, all carefully building to its thrilling conclusion.

The novel moves between the present day kidnapping investigation and Silas and Larry’s boyhood memories. The recollections of the past are a real strength of the book. Even when exploring the boys’ youth Franklin maintains that delicate note of brooding menace that should be present when the reader already knows what the future has in store. Franklin wonderfully captures the sound and feel of the American South, at least in the opinion of someone who’s never been anywhere near. His writing isn’t heavy on description, but the little details he adds (Larry’s ‘father sat sipping his beer in his socks’) create an intimacy that brings the scene to life, without it becoming the focus. And the dialogue is rich and vibrant.

Thematically, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter has more than a bit in common with the Booker prize shortlisted Snowdrops. Both deal with past wrongs, questions of morality and newfound self-awareness, but in very different ways, and yet one reminded me of the other. While I was reading I couldn’t help comparing the two, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is far more convincing and has more impact than Snowdrops could ever hope for. Franklin’s ability to create wonderfully rendered, memorable characters and impeccable dialogue makes Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter a powerful mystery that stands out from its rivals.

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