February 16, 2011

BOOKS: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin (2010)

As boys, Larry and Silas were friends. For a short time, anyway. That friendship ended abruptly in a fury caused by bad parenting, teenage naivete, and the unavoidable complications of race in 1970s Mississippi (Larry is white; Silas is black).

Now the men are in their early 40s, both still living in the same small town. Silas has become a member of the local police force. Larry has spent 20 years under the suspicion that he killed a young woman, though her body was never found and he has always maintained his innocence. He is a social pariah. So when another young woman disappears, Larry is the obvious suspect, and the two men find their lives intersecting again.

The strength of Franklin's novel is his setting. His small-town Mississippi is vividly described, and the sense of just how much race still matters is overwhelming. The characters, especially Silas, are sharply developed. The story is less successful; one of the big plot twists is rather hackneyed, and it's telegraphed far too early.

The strengths outweigh the weaknesses, though, and this is a very entertaining novel. It's one of this year's Edgar nominees in the Best Novel category; I've read four of the six, and I'd place this a respectable second behind Tana French's Faithful Place.

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