This is a book which passed me by until I saw it recommended by US author Attica Locke as an example of Southern Gothic claiming it to be “everything Southern Noir should be”. It also won the UK Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger Award in 2011 given for the best novel of the year. I was also a little fascinated to discover that an author who received such fulsome praise for this, his third novel, (there was also a short story collection in 1999) has only produced one book in collaboration with his poet wife in the decade since. I don’t know why this is.
My initial impression was that it was a very dense novel and despite the prestigious British award I found it as a British reader to be a bit of a struggle to find points of common ground in terms of cultural references, characterisation and attitudes. In a quiet Mississippi town, there’s a continual macho undercurrent of violence and a real love of guns. As the plot builds I did find myself enjoying it more.
Is history repeating itself when a teenage girl disappears? The main suspect is a man who close to twenty years before was implicated when another girl vanished without trace. His life since has been made a misery by the locals but he has stuck it out, alone and vulnerable now his mother is in a home with dementia. A Black cop, Silas, known as 32 because of his baseball shirt number when he played back in the day, has returned to the area and discovers an ex-team mate, latterly a drug-pusher, dead in a swamp. A violent attack on the town scapegoat follows.
Much has been concealed from the past which may have some influence in the present crime-wave. There’s a lot of hostility in the town tied up in past and present responses to the two main characters.
I enjoyed this book. It’s technically very strong and tightly written. Unlike most crime novels the tension comes out not in the situations but with the characters’ relationships with one another which gives this depth and emotional resonance.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was published in the UK in 2011. I read the Pan paperback edition