The remarkable, painterly writer Susan Straight told me once that literary novelists are tiny rowboats next to the ocean liners of popular culture. “We’re rowing our leaky little skiffs like mad,” she said, “as we bail with a coffee can; and meanwhile there goes the giant Stephen King cruise ship or the James Patterson aircraft carrier, fully lit, the music playing, the passengers peering down at us from on high.”
So Tom Franklin just got a bigger boat.
Up until the latter part of the 20th century, literary fiction drove American book sales. Our great writers—Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Cather, Fitzgerald—were the engines of enterprise for the New York publishing houses, and the groundbreakers for the culture, too. A new book by one of the big modern American literary lions meant that a cultural event had occurred, and sales followed.
Now, many of our literary writers have largely been relegated to the commercial backwaters, with just a few exceptions like Jonathan Franzen; and the genre writers have become the big ships. Stieg Larsson, ahoy. Thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, uh huh, even romances—those are the novels that now displace the most commercial and cultural water. Whether this means a wholesale dumbing-down of our culture or a welcome relief from navel-gazing, nothing-happens-twit-lit—well, you decide. But what has occurred means something very serious for those wretched scribes among us who face the keyboard and the blank page every day—it means that most writers who want to both keep writing and continue eating now feel the compulsion to pen a genre novel that can become a series that builds an audience and a brand.
It used to be shocking when a literary giant came down from the mountaintop and wrote genre fiction, but now it’s commonplace. In his last two books, Cormac McCarthy, one of our greatest living authors, wrote a mystery (No Country for Old Men) and an apocalyptic science fiction novel (The Road) that both sold quite well, were optioned and produced handsomely by Hollywood and allowed McCarthy to finally buy the house his many previous literary novels had failed to provide, thank you.
Tom Franklin may be embarking on the same path. Franklin’s first novels, Smonk and Hell at the Breech, came after a noteworthy string of beautifully-wrought short stories (Poachers) and drew a significant amount of praise from literary critics. Predictably, they sold in a very literary way, too. Sales were, as we say in the book business, modest. If a literary novel can sell 5,000 copies in a year, it’s considered a success today. But with the paltry royalties and advances now being paid for even the best literary novels, writers simply cannot live on the proceeds any longer. The normal way around this conundrum—teaching while writing—is the only answer for most literary authors.
And that, as you might suspect, is exactly what Tom Franklin has done. Franklin is a literature professor at Ole Miss in Oxford. But don’t let that deter you—he’s also a talented, terrific writer, mercifully free of the academic effluvia that often taints novels by professors. You won’t find effete existential subject matter or any tedious bouts of doubt and despair detailed in a Tom Franklin novel. Both Smonk and Hell at the Breech are beautifully-written, spare, atmospheric works of historical fiction. Smonk is hilarious and Hell is war, but both of these novels are tough-minded, literary and beautifully crafted works of art.
Hell at the Breech, based very loosely on the Mitcham’s Beat feud as it erupted into murderous retaliation and terror in Alabama in the 1890s (Franklin is a native of Alabama), describes the hard lives and the harder men that live them in the rural South more than a century ago. Some critics called Hell at the Breech the best American novel since Cold Mountain, even as they pigeonholed it in the Southern Gothic ghetto, but Hell at the Breech wasn’t just a great Southern novel, it’s a great American novel. It has that dark, deadly, compelling combination of a serious theme, a fully-realized place and time and a character-driven story about violence and violation that seem to be constants in all notable American fiction. And it has one other rare and powerful attribute—a believable and truly frightening antagonist.
We’ve reached a place in our literary life when we no longer have many terrific villains (See? Even the word seems antiquated). The bad guys aren’t very real anymore. Maybe it’s all the silly comic-book evildoers our blockbuster films have fed us, or the central-casting sameness of the standard deranged serial killer every TV series and bad novel rely on to move the plot relentlessly forward. Or maybe it’s our culture’s tendency to wonder whether evil really exists. Or it could be that we now intimately know the many banal details of the actual, true criminal’s life—the Grim Sleeper in Los Angeles, who fixed neighbor’s cars and killed prostitutes for a few decades, or the gradually dawning mental illness of the student who shot the Congresswoman and killed six others in Tucson.
Whatever the cause of this villain-weariness, it now takes a very accomplished writer to imagine, create and draw nuanced, believable antagonist characters well. Most contemporary villains tend toward two-dimensional, cardboard cutouts with a few really nasty habits and not much else recognizably human to distinguish them—just think of all the psychotic thrill killers, the scheming swarthy terrorists, the corrupt and murderous corporate/law enforcement/government agent types, and the rest of the suspend-disbelief crowd of rent-a-villains we see in most fiction. Yawn. They just don’t inspire any real fear, right? It seems like we’re losing our capacity to imagine and then create truly dastardly and deeply scary characters, with only a few exceptions. So when a writer comes along who can do that, what happens? Well, usually the agent says “Hey, why not write a mystery?”
In Tom Franklin’s case, he has. It’s called Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, after a rhyme that teaches children how to spell the word “Mississippi,” which is where the novel occurs. Franklin has given us two intensely credible, real, flawed characters that play against each other through the course of his mystery—Silas Jones, called 32 after his high school athletic jersey number, and loner Larry Ott, nicknamed Scary Larry after a girl he takes to the drive-in disappears and is never seen again. The book follows the relationship of 32 and Scary Larry from their childhood into adulthood, when Silas becomes a town constable and Larry runs his customer-less auto-repair shop, still suspected many years after the fact of murdering the girl who never came home.
The novel opens with Ott getting shot, and another girl gone missing. Then it accelerates powerfully through the consequences toward a resolution of the central mystery—what happened to those girls? And without giving much away, the mystery hinges on not one but two parallel tracks, both with fully realized villains. Most mysteries barely have the horsepower to create one credible antagonist, but Crooked Letter, true to its doubled-down title, has a rich duality when it comes to delivering darkness.
And the darkness comes not just from the characters and their actions, it seeps like a bloodstain up through the fabric of Franklin’s setting. This is another of the distinguishing characteristics of a great literary mystery—the setting itself becomes a character, and observes and reports on something important. For Crooked Letter, the South and its racial politics and bloodlines and history play a prominent role, working on the relationships between everyone in the novel, and earning the social realism and the Dickensian drive and the deep meaning the best mysteries all possess.
In fact, as literary fiction gets increasingly granular and considers ever-smaller and more personal realms, the great literary mysteries have gone in the other direction. They have become our most telling social and political documents—exactly what Steinbeck and Hemingway and Faulkner used to give us. Starting with Dashiell Hammett’s handful of novels, especially The Maltese Falcon—still one of the most profound examinations of crime and greed and honor in American literature—the heritage runs through Raymond Chandler’s sunlit California noir to Ross McDonald and Ross Thomas, who invented the modern form of the mystery. (The central question inherent in the crime at the center of the plot is elevated into an examination of a greater social or historical injustice, giving us a sense of the world and how it really works.)
Want to read a well-written, hard-hearted, gritty indictment of the gun traffic from the United States into Mexico that makes the cartel wars possible? Don’t look for it on the literature shelves—you’ll find it filed in mysteries: last year’s powerful Iron River, by T. Jefferson Parker. How about a scorching examination of our country’s Iraq policy? Try non-fiction, maybe, but bypass the literary novels and pick up Larry Beinhart’s bleakly beautiful mystery American Hero. If you’re yearning for a contemporary analogue of For Whom the Bell Tolls or Grapes of Wrath, you’ll need to track down the increasingly rare literary realists (like Susan Straight) or head straight for the mystery section.
In the best of the literary mysteries, the writing matches the plotting in excellence. Franklin’s latest novel works not only because of its characters and their believability and depth, and not only because of its deadeye social realism. It works because of the poetic and controlled way the writing plays out on the page and in the mind of the reader. Franklin’s crinkly, nuanced dialogue exerts an irresistible gravitational pull. He pushes minor, supporting characters through the same reality filter he uses to create the aliveness and vitality of his central players. His settings—a room of bookshelves filled with horror novels; a beleaguered cop directing traffic on the tarmac in the steaming afternoon for the shift change at the factory; a ramshackle bar where 32 goes to drink alone—all have the originality and odor of true places. His descriptive passages have a restrained rumble, with measured, gut-bucket three-chord cadences that make the novel imprint itself on your brain and stay there. Reading and immersing yourself in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter feels the same way a long afternoon and evening listening to a great blues singer in a juke joint feels—like you have tapped into an elemental and profound part of your soul you hadn’t really understood before.
You owe it to yourself, if you love literary novels, if you appreciate the fine satisfaction of reading a well-wrought line or discovering and getting to know a unique and compelling character, to pick up one or more of the high-quality literary mysteries that are showing up in increasing numbers these days. You probably already know the canon—Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, T. Jefferson Parker, Robert B. Parker, Thomas Perry, George Pelecanos, Walter Mosley and a few others. To that short list, and on the strength of just one terrific mystery novel, I nominate Tom Franklin.
David Langness is a writer, literary critic and the sole proprietor and chief mechanic of the Topanga Truck Company, tucked away in the mountain hollers of Southern California.