A moody white man, Carl Ott, who owns and operates a roadside automobile repair shop outside the fictitious rural town of Chabot, Mississippi, gets his black maid pregnant and shuttles her off to Chicago. That could be the end of the story, but the girl gets in trouble in Chicago and must flee her violent boy friend and the police. She returns to Oxford penniless with her young boy in tow, and sets in motion a chain of events that many years later, long after she and Carl are both dead, will reach it’s suspenseful climax when the sons of Carl Ott are lying side-by-side in the emergency recovery room of the Chabot hospital.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter takes its name from the rhymed spelling aid for Mississippi (spell that M, i, crooked letter, crooked letter, i, crooked letter, crooked letter, i, humpback, humpback, i). The setting is company town dominated by the local lumber baron, the impartial narrator spins the life stories of the black constable, Silas, and the reclusive white auto mechanic, Larry Ott. The characters are connected by their childhood friendship, which ended in a bloody teenage bust-up, and by the constable’s duty to investigate the townsfolk’s suspicion that the mechanic was responsible for the disappearance of the lumber baron’s daughter.
The author explores the racial tensions in this town where blacks do all the labor in the mill and outnumber whites by a substantial margin. Along the way we meet: Silas’ girlfriend Angie, who is an emergency response nurse, French, the experienced police investigator, and Voncille, who is the heart of city hall. We also meet a scary character who puts poisonous snakes in mailboxes. All these secondary characters are well drawn adding depth and interest to the story.
This novel is a moody, often violent crime drama where the innocent seem to be punished more than the guilty. It is fast paced, but the narrator takes time to give the reader insight into the motivations of every character. This was a non-stop read—unusual for me since I like to linger over a good book.
The story is a sympathetic look at Southern culture in the 21st century.
Day 22: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (Tom Franklin) (2010, short listed for the 2011 Edgar award).