Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Thrillers take many different forms. Some are psychological thrillers, some are espionage stories, and some are international-conspiracy thrillers. But there are other sorts of thrillers with a smaller scope, if you will, but nonetheless have plenty of action and suspense. Let’s take a look at one such thriller today, and turn the spotlight on John Hart’s The Last Child.
Thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon has been devastated since his twin sister, Alyssa, disappeared. She was walking home one day when, from what the police know, she was likely pulled into a car. No-one’s seen her since; not even a body has been discovered. Alyssa’s disappearance has wreaked havoc on the family, too. Johnny’s mother, Katherine, is emotionally devastated and barely functioning (sometimes not even doing that well). His father, Spencer, has gone. It’s been a year, and although the case is still open, the police have made no progress. But Johnny hasn’t forgotten. He is determined to find Alyssa, or at least her body. He’s got a map of the area of North Carolina where his family lives, and a bicycle. And he has a plan for following every lead and every suspect.
One day, Johnny’s skipping school (not unusual for him), spending time down at a local river, when there’s a car accident on the bridge over the river. A man’s body hurtles over the bridge and lands near Johnny. The man dies, but just before he does, he tells Johnny,
‘‘I found her…the girl that was taken.’’
Johnny soon sees that the man’s death was not an accident, and that whoever killed him could still be around, so he runs. But he is convinced that the man found his sister, and thinks she may still be alive.
Detective Clyde Hunt has also been looking for Alyssa. He investigated her disappearance, and has a relationship with the family. In fact, there are people who say he’s gotten too close to the case. He knows that Johnny is searching, too, and tries to dissuade him. There’s no telling what sort of danger the boy could run into, and as it is, he takes more risks than he should. But Johnny is determined to get to the truth.
Hunt and his team learn that the dead man is David Wilson, a local college professor. So they start looking into Wilson’s background. It’s soon clear enough that he wasn’t responsible for Alyssa’s disappearance, so the team starts tracing his last days, to see where he might have been, and with whom.
In the meantime, another young girl, Tiffany Shore, has gone missing. In the desperate search for Tiffany, Hunt and Johnny Merrimon are both hoping to find links to Alyssa’s disappearance. Each in a different way, they go after answers. In the end, each will have to face some very painful truths when they find out what really happened to Alyssa and to Tiffany.
This is a thriller, with the sort of suspense and tension you’d expect from that sub-genre. For instance, Johnny’s search for Alyssa leads him to some very dangerous places. And there are some ruthless people who are determined to keep certain things secret. And whoever killed David Wilson will probably not hesitate to kill again. There are plot twists, too, and surprises, as many thrillers have.
All of that said, though, the pacing isn’t lightning-quick. And we learn a great deal about the main characters. Johnny is, like most people his age, caught between childhood and adulthood. He feels he has to be brave and find his sister, and sometimes he’s surprisingly shrewd and mature. Other times, we see how vulnerable he is. At different parts of the story, he rides his bicycle – and illegally drives a car. He feels the need to take care of his mother – and still wants his mum. Johnny’s never been one of ‘the popular kids,’ and since Alyssa’s disappearance, he’s become even more of a loner. And yet, he’s observant, he’s smart, and he has to endure more than what a lot of thirteen-year-olds could.
For his part, Hunt knows Johnny, and likes him. He admires the way Johnny tries to look after his mother, and respects the boy’s grit and determination. At the same time, he knows better than Johnny does just how ugly the world can be, and he’s worried for the boy’s safety. It doesn’t make matters easier that Hunt has a strained relationship with his own son, Allen, and a great deal of it has to do with Hunt’s involvement in this time-consuming stressful case.
Another element in this novel is the setting. The novel takes place in small-town/rural North Carolina, where people know each other. The characters are inter-connected, and those relationships play a role in what happens. In terms of the physical setting and the cultural setting, Hart places readers there. And in that sense, there’s also an element of the small-town-with-secrets context. In fact, several of the characters know things that they’re not telling.
The main plot in the novel concerns the search for the two missing girls. So as you can imagine, there is the element of possible (or even real) harm coming to young people. I can say without spoiling the story that Hart doesn’t go into gory, gruesome detail. But readers who do not like to read stories where harm could come to children will want to know that that plot point comes up.
The writing style isn’t the clipped, almost brusque style featured in some thrillers. In fact, it’s what you might call literary. There’s plenty of action and tension, but there’s also narrative description. Readers who prefer more succinct stories will notice this (my edition clocked in at 531 pages).
The Last Child is the story of a desperate search for truth, and for two missing girls. It features a detective who’s on a razor’s edge, and young boy who simply will not give up until he finds his sister. It takes place in a distinctly small-town/rural location, and shows the devastation wrought when a family member disappears. But what’s your view? Have you read The Last Child? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 5 September/Tuesday, 6 September – The Last Act of All – Aline Templeton
Monday, 12 September/Tuesday, 13 September – Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog – Boris Akunin
Monday, 19 September/Tuesday, 20 September – In the Bleak Midwinter – Julia Spencer Fleming