Book Review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Crooked Letter, Crooked LetterCrooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I read novels such as Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, I just want to close up shop, put the cap on all my pens, shred every last page of my notebooks, disconnect the laptop and call it a writing life. ‘Cause this is da bomb, baby. This is how to write a STORY.

The novel transcends genre. It is part literary thriller, part Southern Gothic drama and one hundred-percent perfectly crafted, without ever feeling composed. From setting to tone to pacing to character development, there is a sense of oneness. It’s like examining a familiar painting close enough to see the individual brush strokes or dots. As discrete marks, they have no meaning. It isn’t until you move back again that the marvel of the craftmanship strikes you. That’s what a good story does – it offers you a seamless intellectual and emotional reading experience.

What I find most intriguing is the way Franklin uses the atmosphere of his rural Mississippi setting to inform the suspense. Moving between the late 1970s and the late 2000s, the story is shrouded by layers of kudzu and dense forest, where Timber rattlesnakes and Southern cottonmouths lurk in the shadows. The setting is a metaphor for the search for truth, which is mired in layers of suspicion and lies and where innocents are menaced by villains. It also sets the tone, which is grimy with sweat from the thick and languid anticipation or bone-chilling from the rejection of a tiny, cold community. The tension is mostly quiet, the characters move in isolation, the memories private and sad. But within the forest, which looks so cool and peaceful from the outside, lurks a killer. The forest spirits away young women and the clues decay in the hot, wet night.

The setting, at once creepy and bucolic, also informs the complicated history of this region. From its hidden-in-plain-sight legacy of Jim Crow to the intimate nature of community shunning, Franklin never lets the reader relax into familiar clichés. Even the characters you come to trust have black spots that could fester and rot unless they grasp onto the grace of their morality.

The most persecuted character is Larry, a middle-aged white man suspected since high school of murdering a young woman. No body was ever found, no leads ever solid enough to justify an arrest, yet the community cannot forget nor forgive.

Larry lives alone, rising each day to open the automotive repair shop that only strangers ever patronize. He subsists off TV dinners, horror novels and his memories, the happiest of which are of the days in his early childhood when he had one friend. That friend was Silas, a black child who lived with his single mother in a tattered cabin on Larry’s father’s property. Raised by a single mom, his paternal heritage a mystery, Silas becomes a secret companion to the awkward, bookish, unpopular Larry. The friendship fades as Silas becomes a high school athlete of renown and leaves the area to attend university. He returns many years later to his southeast Mississippi hometown to take up a quiet post in law enforcement in a community where bar fights, meth labs and wildlife poaching are the greatest hazards. That is, until the daughter of the region’s wealthiest man disappears. And Larry is once again the prime suspect of foul play.

And that’s enough of the plot. It runs too deeply and is too ripe for spoilers to discuss further. For within a murder mystery lie other mysteries — of friendship, family and community. Like a Russian matryoshka doll, the story reveals a series of discoveries until at last it ends, with the final truth.

I read this in a day. And now I don’t quite know what to do with myself. Acts like these are tough to follow.

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Book Review: The Reservoir, John Milliken Thompson

The ReservoirThe Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“On March 14, 1885, a body is floating in the old Marshall Reservoir, in a light snow, and then under a waxing moon.” From its opening sentence, The Reservoir draws in the reader with harsh details rendered in shapely language. This is historical fiction at its entertaining, dramatic, and authentic best.

Historian and short story writer John Milliken Thompson read a paragraph in a history of Richmond, VA that sparked his curiosity. His research took him deep into 1880’s Virginia, into the death of a single, pregnant woman and the sensational trial of a promising young lawyer. He emerged with a classical Greek tragedy that is rich with period detail and crime noir suspense. It’s all here: passion and lust, brotherly love and rivalry, trust and betrayal, tenderness and violence. But murder? You be the judge…

This is not a page-burner. The suspense builds slowly, as the story winds back and forth in time and the details of the dead woman’s last days, as well as her childhood, are reconstructed. It’s like sipping a few fingers of small batch bourbon, not tossing back a belt of Wild Turkey. You’ll want to savor the nuance and the smoldering tension as the characters’ true natures emerge and you piece together the clues. Milliken Thompson does a masterful job of giving his characters multiple dimensions. No one wears shining armor or angel’s wings, but neither is anyone completely black of heart. Well, almost no one…

I was also impressed by the way the author shows the South struggling to adapt in this generation after the Civil War. The societal contrasts are striking: Slavery is abolished but racial oppression remains; cities are rapidly modernizing, but the South is still an agrarian region; most women have little say in their social or economic futures, but some are finding their way into higher education and white-collar employment.

The latter third of the book is a gripping courtroom drama that will have you racing to the end. What you discover in the final pages may not be at all what you’d expected. It is not an easy ending, but it is perfectly executed. What you can be certain of is a brilliantly written drama that brings immediate life to a long-ago tragedy.

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