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Friday, June 18, 2010

What I'm Reading: The Last Child

Recently, I finished listening to this year's Edgar Award winner for best novel, The Last Child by John Hart. Although this book has garnered much praise, I was less than overwhelmed by it. I will point out my problems with the book after, like the good RA librarian I am, I focus on why it would appeal to readers.

The plot is pretty simple. Our setting is a not quite suburban, not quite rural, North Carolina small town. There are two main protagonists who drive this mystery/suspense tale.

First is the child in the title and on the cover, Johnny, whose twin sister has been missing for exactly one year. In that year, Johnny's life has fallen to pieces. His Dad has run off, his mom has become the concubine of a rich sleaze bag who keeps her constantly high but puts a roof over her and Johnny's head. Johnny has gone from a good, happy kid to a delinquent who skips school and disappears for hours at a time so that he can go house by house in their town looking for his sister.

Our other protagonist is Detective Hunt, who has also been haunted by the disappearance of Johnny's twin sister. As the lead detective on the case, Hunt has also seen his life go down the tubes in the last 12 months. His son has withdrawn from him, his wife has left him, and he has developed an unhealthy obsession with Johnny's mother.

So, the plot follows these 2 characters as they work toward solving the mystery. Along the way they uncover more crimes, research the history of slaves in their county, and are forced to do a lot of soul searching.

Appeal: This is a twisting, suspense story with a child hero. It is a detailed and constantly busy story; just as things slow down, something new is discovered, or the pov shifts, and we are back, breathlessly on the run trying to keep up with the plot. There are 2 main first person narrators and a large cast of interesting secondary characters. The book is also domestically centered, as many of the plot lines have familial consequences. Although there is drug use, domestic violence, exhumed bodies, and children in danger, there is very little blood in this story and it would appeal to a wide range of suspense fans. The book is concluded satisfactorily with all of the main plot strings very neatly tied up, but with a few unanswered questions for the future if Hart ever wanted to revisit the characters.

For me, this book was not one of my favorite suspense titles for a few reasons that directly relate to its appeal to me as a reader.  First, I knew from the start who "did it." I did not have the details right and Hart threw in a few curves but I knew who was guilty. So, as I read, and Hart tried to throw me off the track with a different shocking sub plot, I became angry when I got to the end and saw that I was actually on the right track from about page 50.

Also, I read for character and I never really got into Johnny and Detective Hunt. I liked them, but I was not compelled to follow them. Both were too good and perfect in my mind. In fact, everything in this book was black and white. I much prefer my fiction to have some ambiguity; an unreliable narrator, a dark spot in someone's past, etc.. There was very little of that here.

And finally, I found the end of this novel to be too overtly evangelical. I was shocked that no reviewer pointed out that the conclusion involves the discussion of how God sometimes needs to sacrifice the innocent to help bring evil doers to justice. It went into much more detail than this and went on for quite awhile imo. Maybe I was too sensitive being a non-Christian, but it was a bit uncomfortable for me and, I felt, kinda out of nowhere.

Readalikes: As I mentioned above, The Last Child won this year's Edgar Award for Best Novel. Here are the other nominees from this year. At he bottom of the page you can also find links to the past few year's nominees and winners.

For fans of award winning, not gratuitously violent, family-centered suspense, I would highly suggest Mary Higgins Clark, Harlen Coben, and C.J. Box.

Jim the Boy by Tony Earley and its sequel, The Blue Star are not suspense stories, but they do have a young protagonist out on his own looking for answers to family questions in rural North Carolina. I would highly suggest these titles to fans of the setting and the young protagonist.

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