A William Faulkner successor
I read Mississippi author Tom Franklin’s historical novel, Hell at the Breech, a few years ago when I was traveling in rural Mississippi and Alabama on my way to a Florida winter getaway. It was a perfect companion piece for the trip because Franklin is a worthy successor to William Faulkner for getting under the skin of - for lack of a better term - the southern red neck. In Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter Ford pickups have replaced mules, Walmarts the country store, and meth labs moonshine, but the mentality hasn’t changed, and Franklin makes the southern red neck, not sympathetic, but understandable to a middle-aged female Midwestern librarian like me.
The book opens with an act of violence. Larry has been the pariah of his tiny village since over 20 years ago he was suspected, but never charged, in the disappearance of a teenage girl. That girl went missing when the two were on a date to the drive in movies. Now he is “a person of interest” in the disappearance of another local girl. When he comes home from yet another day of no business at his auto repair shop, he is shot point blank in the chest by a masked intruder. While Larry fights for his life in the hospital, village constable Silas, known as "32" (his high school baseball number), begins to investigate, but his efforts are complicated by the troubled relationship the two had as boys. Part of the problem is race, Larry is white and Silas black, but as the story progresses, more and more complex reasons emerge.
You can read this book on many levels, all of them thoroughly satisfying. It is a well plotted crime novel. Franklin builds interest by doling out information in time shifts from the present to the recent past to the far past and back again without ever confusing the reader. But, as with Faulkner, plot is the least of what’s going on here. Mythic themes of sin and atonement, good and evil are explored.
The sense of place is palpable. One of Franklin’s many skillful techniques in accomplishing this is his pitch perfect rendering of dialog. No jungle of apostrophes to distract you but phonetic spelling so you can hear the accent without missing the beat: barbed wire is “bobwire.” A character says, “Just brang me a Co-Cola.” The characters, even the secondary ones, are distinct and well developed. Not a word is wasted. An episode where Silas is called upon to remove a poison snake from a mailbox at first seems just a darn good story - and it is - but it ends up contributing to the resolution of the plot at the end.
But best of all, is his use of imagery. Nearly every page has a word picture that catches your breath: “At the edge of the porch several ferns hung from the eave, his mother’s wind chime lodged in one like a flung puppet” or “The two antique [gas] pumps hadn’t worked in years, though, and looked like a pair of robots on a date.”
Read this, but maybe not on a hot, humid day. That might be too much.