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Mystery on the dark Mississippi

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday February 19, 2011

Review by Sue Turnbull

CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTERTom FranklinMacmillan, 272pp, $32.99If you were inclined to judge a book by its title, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter would probably not be your first choice for the moniker of a gripping crime novel. But Tom Franklin is upfront with a rationale for his choice: "M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I," he tells us in the opening epigram, is how southern children in America are taught to spell Mississippi. And it is to Mississippi, in all its political and southern (gothic) literary peculiarity, that Franklin takes us to tell a story which, while it may be about a crime, or rather, crimes, is unforgettably about people in a particular time and place.Think deep-dish William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor in terms of atmosphere; recall Harper Lee and her evocation of childhood loss of innocence; nod towards Cormac McCarthy in terms of style and then keep going. Franklin has channelled all of his "southren" literary forebears, while learning something about storytelling from Stephen King - an adolescent guilty pleasure, apparently. The result is a novel that may be familiar in terms of genre and style but is also entirely unique in its achievement, which is, astonishingly, something akin to a state of grace.Larry Ott, the loneliest man in Chabot, Mississippi, population 500, reads Stephen King behind the desk of his roadside mechanic shop where nobody ever stops except strangers who don't know Larry's history. Twenty-five years ago, Larry took Cindy Walker to the drive-in and she was never seen again. Twenty-five years later and another Chabot girl has disappeared, and Larry is again "a person of interest", especially when he is found with a gunshot wound in what looks like a botched suicide attempt.Silas Jones, ex-baseball player (number 32) and former seaman, who was friends with the lonely Larry for a brief summer when they were boys, is now the local constable, and the only one who thinks Larry didn't do it. Silas, it transpires, knows much more about Larry than he lets on - as this story of interracial friendship and adolescent betrayal slowly, and elegantly, unravels.The first seven pages are exemplary in terms of Franklin's style. With perfect judgment and beautiful phrasing he takes us through Larry's solitary routine as he wakes, feeds and cares for his chickens. "Good morning, ladies," he says before he goes to sit and read in his deserted shop, only to leave early to visit his mother, who is having a good enough day to actually remember his name, the nurse tells him. He is, as we observe, a kindly man in his enforced isolation.Meanwhile, Silas has spotted a flock of buzzards in the sky, "dark smudges against darker clouds like World War II photographs he'd seen of flak exploding around bomber planes". The birds lead him to a body, the first of a few Silas will encounter in this vivid country where squirrels bark, frogs burp and the armadillos snorkel through the dead leaves.He has a keen ear for dialogue: people's rhythms of speech and the spaces in between, especially the silences that characterise Larry Ott's life. How that silence is broken, by whom and with what consequences is the intrigue that hooks the reader into this memorable and moving book.

© 2011 Sydney Morning Herald

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