Like this year’s nominees Steve Hamilton, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, and Tana French, Tom Franklin is a previous Edgar winner, for his short story, Poachers (in 1999). In fact, the only MWA Best Novel- nominated author who hasn’t been blessed in the past is Timothy Hallinan. The Queen of Patpong is his first nomination.
So needless to say, the competition has been fierce. There isn’t a boring book in the bunch. Crooked Letter Crooked Letter, the final contender, offers a story that is much more than it first appears. Franklin introduces us to two key characters: Larry Ott, who serves as a kind of caretaker for both his family home and the family business – he’s a mechanic – and police constable Silas “32” Jones. The men have intertwining lives back through their childhood friendship, even though the athletically talented Silas went away to college and the city for many years.
And – ta da! – this is the sixth nominee out of six that that hinges on a past crime. I’m afraid this fact is going to affect how I read any mystery, thriller, or suspense novel from now on… constantly looking for how the past is going to pop up in the present. Eerily enough, the book I’m writing now features an 18-year-old crime. (Cue spooky music.)
But back to Crooked Letter Crooked Letter. The book opens with a look at Larry Ott’s life today. Tom Franklin’s prose is beautiful, giving the reader terrific insight into the character while simply describing what he does that day. The intro has a great sting at the end – coming into the home he has lived in his whole life, Larry is shot in the chest. Talk about starting off with a bang.
Meanwhile, his childhood friend Silas has been investigating the possible abduction of a missing local teen – the popular daughter of the town’s richest man. Some in town think that Larry is the most likely suspect, as the case is reminiscent of a similar girl gone missing 25 years ago – missing from a date with Larry. His only date, ever.
The story shifts between present day and the past, and as the book progresses it becomes clear that Larry and Silas are even more intertwined than first revealed, as the reader begins to suspect that Larry’s dad and Silas’ mom know each other better than they should. And, in fact, white Larry and black Silas are half-brothers.
Even more shocking, Silas is the only one who knows for a fact that Larry couldn’t have killed flirtatious Cindy Walker 25 years ago, because her “date” with Larry had, in fact, been cover for a forbidden rendezvous with Silas. Over the course of the story, Silas comes to grips with the true impact of his teenage selfishness.
Things to love about this book: Beautiful prose, strongly evocative of time and place; well-developed, three-dimensional characters; skillful interweaving of the past and present so it doesn’t feel like Franklin is “cheating” by withholding information; surprises throughout.
Not as strong: Some readers might find the ending too upbeat, with its emphasis on Silas’ efforts to make amends. I liked it – but it did make a difference when it comes to the rankings.
When comparing Crooked Letter Crooked Letter to the other nominees, it definitely came in higher than The Queen of Patpong. Better than I’d Know You Anywhere? Better than Faithful Place? The final ranking came down to complexity of the story, the characters, and sheer satisfaction. Dark as it was, with a glimmer of hope for the future, Faithful Place takes the #1 spot.
Here are the Final Lunchbox rankings for the 2011 Edgar for Best Novel:
- Faithful Place – Tana French
- Crooked Letter Crooked Letter – Tom Franklin
- I’d Know You Anywhere – Laura Lippman
- The Queen of Patpong – Timothy Hallinan
- Caught – Harlan Coben
- The Lock Artist – Steve Hamilton
I’ll be moving on to Best First Novel in my next series of reviews and rankings!