Johnny and Alyssa Merrimon were much like any 12-year-olds. They were full of hope and their lives were full of happiness. But all that changed on the day when Alyssa was abducted. It changed everyone.
Her father would abandon the family, seemingly unable to cope with the blame of not having picked her up from school. Her mother would turn to self-medication, combinations of oxycontin, cocaine, and whatever happened to pour from the bottle. The detective assigned to the case became obsessed, distancing himself and destroying his own family in the process.
Their lives would be turned upside down again as they relive the tragedy when another girl goes missing one year later. Except this time, things are different. Despite his age, Johnny Merrimon isn't content to sit on the sidelines. He has been working the county for months, peeking in windows, listening to conversations, and taking notes. The only question is whether he has enough to find the predator.
The Last Child weaves together a triple mystery against a stopwatch.
Time is running out for everyone. It's running out for Detective Clyde Hunt because his career is headed toward a crashing end. It's running out for Katherine Merrimon, whose drug abuse and destructive relationship will eventually force Johnny Merrimon into child services. It's running out for convict Levi Freemantle, who seems to be tied to the unspeakable crimes. And it's running out for Alyssa Merrimon and Tiffany Shore, the second abductee.
The story isn't so much a detective mystery as a literary work that explores the darkness of the human heart and how far people will go to protect their secret and sometimes sinister twisted desires, including vengeance masquerading as justice or righteousness. Laid bare, the story borders on the horrific. But colored with richly vivid characters, author John Hart breathes compassion into each primary character, drawing out some empathy or perhaps pity for everyone except the monsters.
There are plenty of monsters in the story. Even those who have no connection to the abducted are hellbent on exerting their control over other people, giving themselves a sense of glorified power. They believe, somehow, they are in control of not only their destiny, but the destinies of others as well — a failing even the protagonists suffer from time to time.
A little bit about the author who pulls the strings of despair.
Born in Durham, N.C. and now living in Rowan County, where he draws inspiration, John Hart is also as much of a contrast as the socio-economic classes that clash in his books. He has worked as a banker, stockbroker, and attorney, but also as a teak sander, helicopter mechanic, and bartender.
He gave up all those other careers to pursue his dream of becoming a novelist after failing to write stories part time in the mornings or late at night. The result was his first book, the acclaimed The King Of Lies. The Last Child is his third book, which has already won an Edgar Award for best novel 2010 and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for 2009.
Where Hart does exceptionally well is in his ability to play on the mechanism of classic mystery — giving you enough foreshadow to guess at whom might be tied to any number of treacherous twists — but then pulling every thread away. They aren't even twists sometimes as much as an author purposefully laying bait. What remains most interesting even though it is at times overwhelming is how every character suffers in despair.
The Last Child By John Hart Is Bleakly Entertaining At 4.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
Not everyone will enjoy a book that is cut from several genres, but some of the more conspicuous criticisms are well off the mark. For example, some could argue that Johnny witnessing a murder was an overreaching coincidence that gives too much away. That's not true, really. It doesn't give him any real clues, but it does give him a refreshed sense of urgency.
However, some other points are valid. Stereotypes and prose sometimes get away from Hart, allowing characters to pound some points over and over again. Hunt's observations of how he sees the Merrimon boy is one. The way the boy's friend continuously pleads is another. But overall, these are small annoyances that can be brushed aside.
The Last Child by John Hart is available from Amazon. Barnes & Noble also carries the book. Scott Sowers narrates the audiobook on iTunes.