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Deep South thriller unfolds in 1927 flood

| Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 6:24 p.m.

“The Tilted World” is a captivating Deep South drama that unfolds in the spring of 1927 as the rising, roiling waters of the Mississippi River head toward an epic and catastrophic flood.

It also is a beautifully written, smartly crafted thriller that offers many delights, among them its hard-luck heroine, Dixie Clay, a fetching young woman who ends up on the wrong side of the law against bootlegging.

Her counterpoint is Ted Ingersoll, one of two federal revenue agents who arrive in Mississippi Delta moonshine territory on a Prohibition-era mission. Amid incessant rain and wind, as well as fears that an imperiled levee may be ripped by dynamite, Ingersoll will find much more than white lightning on his path.

That includes a newly orphaned infant named Willy, whose fate becomes as uncertain as Dixie Clay's.

Written jointly by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, a married couple who live, write and teach in Oxford, Miss., the novel is a page turner with witty historical asides, including an early appearance by then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, who is riding the great flood to the White House.

With romantic twists and tense scenes that make it hard to put down, the book is a pleasure to read. The writing is deft and memorable, at times potent with emotional punch.

That's to be expected. Its authors have won notable praise, Franklin for his fiction, Fennelly for her poetry. His previous novel, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” also in the “Southern Noir” or “Southern Gothic” vein, won the 2010 Los Angeles Times prize for best mystery-thriller. Her first book of poems, “Open House,” won the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize for debut poetry.

“The Tilted World” was suggested by their agents, the husband-and-wife team of Nat Sobel and Judith Weber, as an expanded version of Franklin and Fennelly's collaborative short story, “What His Hands Had Been Waiting For.”

Collaborating on a novel might seem to create prickly problems, but Franklin and Fennelly write almost seamlessly, rarely allowing the rhythm of the narrative to shift when the writer's baton is passed from one to the other.

The 1927 Mississippi River flood was one of the country's worst disasters, but was little-remembered until John Barry's 1997 book, “Rising Tide,” captured its historic impact. In fiction, the Mississippi master, William Faulkner, used the flood as the backdrop for his short novel “Old Man,” which he wrote in alternating chapters with a distinctly different short novel, “The Wild Palms” — a kind of collaboration with himself using two contrasting voices.

In the Deep South suspense genre, “The Tilted World” is a worthy addition to the literature of the 1927 flood.

Kendal Weaver is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

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