Don’t you just love discovering a new author via a really good book? Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a really good book.
A word about the title: according to the author in the epigraph, southern children are taught to spell “Mississippi” as “M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.” Although the title may not resonate with northerners, it seems like an apt choice once you read the book.
Larry Ott, forty-one, white, single and still living in his boyhood home, has always been a social outcast. In high school, he was accused of murdering a high school girl whose body was never found, and now another girl in the area has gone missing. Larry is a natural suspect.
Larry had a secret friend when he was younger – a black boy his age named Silas who lived with his mother in a cabin on the back of the Ott’s property. Larry and Silas were not allowed to play together, but they surreptitiously enjoyed each other’s company and hung around together until one horrible day that forced them apart.
Now, Silas has returned to Chabot, Mississippi as the town’s only constable, a very low-level job that mostly consists of traffic monitoring. Matters of import are handled by the Gerald County Chief Investigator, Roy French.
Silas never acknowledges Larry, nor do any others in the town, except to harass him. Yet every day Larry shows up for work at his car mechanic’s shop, waiting for someone who doesn’t know his reputation – someone from out of town maybe – to need his help.
But Silas knows Larry; knows who he is and what kind of person he is. And as you find out more about the past and what brought these two together and then drove them apart, you come to understand what really happened to these girls and why.
Evaluation: I can’t tell you too much about what happens, except that this author sure knows how to tell a story! And the way he weaves the Southern culture and atmosphere into every bit of his prose is mesmerizing. In this passage, steeped in sensory allusions, we see Larry driving his tractor through the field. Note that even the very language chosen places this scene in a southern context:
“The Ford parted the weeds and wildflowers and set off bumblebees and butterflies and soggy grasshoppers and dragonflies, which his mother used to call snake doctors. The tractor threw its long shadow toward the far fence and he turned and began to circle the field, the privet cut back along the bob wire, the trees tall and lush, the south end still shaded and dewy and cool. He bush-hogged twice a month from March to July, but when the fall wildflowers came he let them grow. Migrating hummingbirds passed through in September, hovering around the blue salvia, which they seemed to love, chasing one another away from the blooms.”
And then there are all the cultural elements so integral the plot you couldn’t separate them out and keep the same meaning: food fried in bacon grease, coca cola, kudzu, cottonmouth snakes, catfish, drinking, racism and tolerance, chickens and blue jeans and drive-ins and gators, and “country dark nights” when you could walk in the woods “where the treetops stitched out the stars.” There are drunken fathers, quietly suffering mothers, cruel kids and oblivious teachers. But there is also humor, nuance, friendship, sacrifice, wisdom, and love.
This book has beautiful prose, and a page-turning story. I can’t really identify its genre: it could be literary fiction, or suspense, or racial-conflict, or all of the above. But it’s very well-crafted, and memorable, and I highly recommend this selection of the Southern Indie Booksellers for its list of Fall 2010 Okra Picks — “great southern books, fresh off the vine.”
Published by William Morrow, 2010
Barry Award Nominee for Best Novel (2011)
Anthony Award Nominee for Best Novel (2011)
Hammett Prize Nominee (2010)
Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Contemporary Mystery (2010)
Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller (2010)
Edgar Award Nominee for Best Novel (2011)
Willie Morris Award (2010)
CWA Gold Dagger Award (2011)
Alabama Author Award – Fiction (2011)