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Two murders in Mississippi and one of the saddest protagonists you'll ever read.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

William Morrow, 2010, 274 pages

In a small Mississippi town, two men are torn apart by circumstance and reunited by tragedy in this resonant new novel from the award-winning author of the critically-acclaimed Hell at the Breech.

Larry Ott and Silas "32" Jones were unlikely boyhood friends. Larry was the child of lower middle-class white parents, Silas the son of a poor, single, black mother - their worlds as different as night and day. Yet a special bond developed between them in Chabot, Mississippi. But within a few years, tragedy struck. In high school, a girl who lived up the road from Larry had gone to the drive-in movie with him and nobody had seen her again. Her stepfather tried to have Larry arrested, but no body was found and Larry never confessed. The incident shook up the town, including Silas, and the bond the boys shared was irrevocably broken.

Almost 30 years have passed. Larry, a mechanic, lives a solitary existence in Chabot, never able to rise above the whispers of suspicion, the looks of blame that have shadowed him. Silas left home to play college baseball, but now he's Chabot's constable. The men have few reasons to cross paths, and they rarely do - until fate intervenes again.

Another teenaged girl has disappeared, causing rumors to swirl once again. Now, two men who once called each other friend are finally forced to confront the painful past they’ve buried for too many years.

Larry Ott's life sucks, and it always has. One of the things that makes him such a sympathetic protagonist is that, while he's obviously miserable, he never seems bitter and he doesn't wallow in self-pity. He just endures.

In 1982, Larry was the perpetual odd kid out, the one who was never picked for teams, never invited to any parties in the small Mississippi town of Chabot. His family had a little money, but not enough to make him popular. He was too much into book-learning and Stephen King novels, not really creepy or unpleasant, just a little too weird and socially inept to be any good at making friends.

Then, when he gets the nerve to ask out a pretty, popular girl, she says yes, and Larry thinks maybe for once in his young life he's getting lucky... and he's not even expecting to get that lucky.

This first date goes horribly, crushingly, humiliatingly wrong. And that's even before his date never comes home.

Nearly 30 years later, Larry is back in Chabot, running his father's old auto repair shop with barely any customers and spending his nights alone. His mother is in a home, suffering from dementia. "Scary Larry" still has no friends. Everyone in town knows that he raped and killed that girl 30 years ago, even if they never did find her body and he claims he dropped her off outside her house.

Then another girl is found dead on Larry's property, the same night that someone shoots Larry.

Investigating both crimes is Silas "32" Jones. Like Larry, Silas grew up in Chabot. Whereas Larry was white and middle class, Silas was black and dirt poor. But unknown to everyone but them, they were friends once... before Larry became "Scary Larry," before both of them left Chabot, only to return and find the past catching up to them both.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a character-driven literary mystery steeped in small-town Mississippi atmosphere. It's like watching one of the better episodes of In the Heat of the Night. The main characters, Larry Ott and Silas Jones, are the only ones completely developed, but all the other characters are well rendered and very human. The "mystery" part of the novel isn't what makes it interesting, as the author doesn't really go to too much effort to keep the reader guessing. However, the secrets that Larry and Silas have to unbury makes their shared past that much sadder.

This isn't what I'd call a comfort read, as there's too much tragedy for that, but it's a nice little self-contained novel with plot, climax, and resolution and well-written characters.

Verdict: Highly recommended if you like mysteries, literary fiction, damaged but not pitiful protagonists, and Southern literature. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is pure Mississippi, with white and black characters who aren't playing out some sort of didactic racial drama but equally interwoven into their problematic pasts.

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