Book review: ‘Wild and Crooked’ a small town murder mystery

In Leah Thomas’ Wild and Crooked Kalyn Spence and Gus Peake must reconcile with a past that they were not alive to see in a town that refuses to let it go.

Ann Marie Leimbach, Variety Editor

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Kalyn Spence lives in a trailer and keeps an egg in her pocket in case she has to throw it at anyone. Gus Peake is obsessed with Alexander McQueen and his house is filled with pictures of his dead dad. When Kalyn moves to the fictional town of Samsboro Kentucky, she and Gus become fast friends. The problem? Kalyn’s father is in prison for murdering Gus’ father before either of them were born.

Part coming-of-age and part murder mystery, Wild and Crooked by Leah Thomas is heartwarming and thought-provoking look into masks other people make us wear.

Both Kalyn and Gus have had to deal with assumptions from strangers their whole lives. Having grown up in poverty with a father in jail, Kalyn is expected to be a bad kid. The only thing the people of Samsboro see when they look at Gus is a kid with Cerebral Palsy and a dead dad. They don’t expect him to be a real person.

When the news breaks that The Innocence Fighters are working to get Kalyn’s father out of prison, the town explodes. As anger turns towards Kalyn, she and Gus get caught in a battle against the town’s blind hatred. Like a Romeo and Juliet story, the pair have to fight against a world that wants to treat them apart.

Leah Thomas’ nuanced characters shine through in this novel. The story could not be told without the unique perspectives and voices each person brings. Every main character is as complex and real as the next one with their own problems, experiences and secrets to confront as everything boils over.

Another stand-out feature of Wild and Crooked is the inclusion and treatment of its queer characters. Gus is bisexual and lives with his two mothers and Kalyn’s identity as a lesbian is treated as a character trait instead of a plot point. Gus and Kalyn’s relationship is a platonic love story and that is all it needs to be.

While the book is diverse in its inclusion of queer characters, it is disappointing to see the lack of racial diversity. While it does take place in a small Kentucky town, no people of color appear at all during the story. In a novel so rich and meaningful, it is frustrating to see so little representation.

Despite this shortcoming, the story is politically engaged in other ways. Thomas addresses classism and ableism in really poignant ways. It is clear that there was a lot of research and care that went into creating characters with authentic experiences and rich inner lives. It is passionately feminist and deeply earnest in a way that many do not expect from a young adult novel.

When two kids that seem destined to be enemies become inextricably connected it turns into something beautiful. Wild and Crooked is a thoughtful, witty and engaging book that could warm even the hardest heart.

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