Tina Rutherford, daughter of the richest man in small-town Chabot, Miss., has been missing for over a week. But Tom Franklin’s new novel, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” isn’t about her abduction.
Rutherford’s disappearance instead serves as the impetus for exploring the novel’s central relationship: the fraught childhood friendship between Silas Jones, a black newcomer who lives with his mother in a cabin without electricity or running water, and Larry Ott, a white, bookish boy already considered the “town weirdo,” who desperately longs for a friend.
The title of the novel comes from the way children in the South were taught to spell Mississippi: “M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.” And the action snakes around between past and present, revealing aspects of the brief burst of camaraderie between Larry and Silas when they were boys; the racially tinged tension between them and the violent moment that separated them; and their rocky reunion, overcast with tragedy and painful discovery.
At the beginning of the story, Larry is already under suspicion, the main and perhaps only “person of interest” in the Rutherford case. Twenty-five years earlier he’d been accused of killing a girl, and though he was never formally charged, the entire town convicted him, and he’s lived a solitary life ever since.
The only thing Larry shares with Chabot is the weight of his isolation – the town’s economic welfare rests solely with its lumber mill and all the shops are either open out of habit (the clothing store “had gone so long without customers it’d briefly become a vintage clothing store without changing stock”) or going out of business.
Silas had been the star basketball player in high school, and now that he’s returned to Chabot as its one full-time constable, he is affectionately called “32,” after his old jersey number. He’s avoided Larry since being back in Chabot, but the Rutherford case brings him once again within Larry’s reach, calling on him to reconcile with the past.
Though not in essence a mystery or a thriller, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” possesses surprising twists and turns as Franklin reveals more background and history slowly, almost quietly. It’s a beautifully written, haunting and at times acutely painful story about race, class and friendship set in a rural Southern town built on the memories of crimes and other abuses of past generations.
“Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” (William Morrow, $24.99), by Tom Franklin