Crooked Letter’s solitary Southern voyeur and co-protagonist Larry Ott is a Stephen King-devouring outcast. Growing up in late-’70s rural Mississippi, he is friendless until the day Silas Jones appears, with his mother, on the side of the road, and Larry’s father stops to give the coatless pair a ride on a chilly March morning. This glimpse into the past captures an innocent time for both boys—one black, one white—before Silas learns the consequences of fraternizing with white folks, and before a teenage Larry becomes “Scary Larry” following a first date with a girl who is never heard from again.
In present-day Chabot, Mississippi, Jones is the town constable, responsible for directing traffic when the shifts change at the Rutherford Lumber Mill, removing snakes from mailboxes, and other similarly unglamorous duties. When the Rutherford family’s daughter goes missing, however, the search becomes priority no. 1, and suspicions fall again on Scary Larry, who was never proven guilty in the earlier case, but also never forgiven by the town.
For reasons both professional and personal, Jones has long been careful to avoid his childhood association with Ott. But as the investigation unfolds, Silas faces a moral dilemma. He can reveal his links to Larry and possibly compromise his authority, or remain silent and let a troubled soul stand alone in the face of the community's fear and loathing.
There are any number of ways in which this flashback-heavy, literary crime novel could fall flat, but it avoids contrivance with its pitch perfect dialogue, unhurried small-town pacing, and day-in-the-life faithfulness to its characters.
Unlike the aforementioned King of verbosity, Tom Franklin is a model of literary economy, creating intimate portraits of his characters in just a few well-crafted early scenes. As each carefully-built piece of the puzzle falls into place, the 270-page novel finishes as tidily as one of Franklin’s short stories, which, as the author’s Best Short Story Edgar Award for 1999’s “Poachers” confirms, makes it a pretty good bet.