"The Last Child" by John Hart
Minotaur, 373 pp., $24.95
Reviewed by David Marshall James
Few books take the reader on such a hard-edged journey as "The Last Child" does.
It isn't so much a thriller in the conventional sense as a harrowing series of events spun into a protracted unraveling of concealed actions, resulting in a rash of dire consequences.
In his third novel, North Carolina author John Hart sets the stage on terra familiar, with the proceedings confined to a county in the northeastern part of the state, on the edge of the sandhills, about 60 miles inland.
There's a small city that's large enough for a hospital, a shopping mall, a college, and a seemingly endless supply of skullduggery. At the outset, Hart introduces a 13-year-old boy, John (Johnny) Pendleton Merrimon, whose family has been ripped asunder by tragic occurrences one year in the past.
His twin sister, Alyssa, has disappeared, reportedly abducted on an evening when her father was supposed to pick her up after school. In the fallout from the guilt explosion that ensues, Johnny's father takes off for parts unknown.
Johnny is left with a personal quest: To locate his sister, whom he believes to be the victim of one of the local criminals on release, probably a freed sex offender.
A bright, scholastically gifted student in spite of his repeated truancy, Johnny eagerly escapes a depressive household, his mother held hostage-- figuratively and somewhat literally-- by a millionaire businessman who keeps her zoned out with prescription antidepressants, painkillers, and alcohol.
The only path that Johnny can see out of the domestic hellhole constituted by his mother's descent and subservience to her rich boyfriend is through finding Alyssa.
Meanwhile, the lead detective on the case of her disappearance, Clyde Hunt-- also guilt-wracked over the increasingly cold case-- has been maintaining a watchful eye over Johnny and his mother as their lives bottom out and threaten to disintegrate entirely.
After creating this dark scenario, Hart places Johnny near a gruesome vehicular crash that sends the plot accelerating on bent-needle speed. The author introduces an element of Native American mysticism, as Johnny turns to multiple deities and totems in his despair. Moreover, one of the major characters, Levi Freemantle, is reminiscent of the mystically spiritual John Coffey in "The Green Mile," and the story is grounded in a past far beyond that of Alyssa's disappearance.
By the close, it's as if the reader has witnessed five full acts of Renaissance tragedy, complete with the requisite purge of an infected society and its accompanying body count.
For the sake of a more modern comparison, "The Last Child" ranks on a par with the best of Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels-- "Billy Straight" comes to mind. Although Hart's novel reeks of the societal ills that plague everyday-and-everywhere American neighborhoods, he provides hope of redemption, if not through an entirely human commitment to righting wrongs, then through divine intervention.
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