In The Spotlight: John Hart’s The Last Child*

>In The Spotlight: Kel Robertson's Smoke and MirrorsHello, All,

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


Filed under John Hart, The Last Child

32 responses to “In The Spotlight: John Hart’s The Last Child*

  1. Sounds like a good story Margot, with a decent hook and strong characters – I would really have to know what the fate of the girls was before I’d be prepared to read it though. Not asking you for that of course, you need to be spoiler free, but no knowing would get in the way of any enjoyment for – just the “wrong” kind of suspense, for me, a purely personal peccadillo of course,.

    • I know exactly and precisely what you mean, Sergio. That sort of suspense isn’t for everyone. I will say, though, that you’re right about the characters. They’re fleshed-out, I think, and with a solid mix of flaws and character strengths. It’s interesting, too, that part of the story is told (in 3rd person, past tense) from Johnny’s point of view, so we also see a bit of his coming of age, if I can put it that way.

  2. I’m intrigued by this one Margot – I often think that authors get this age-group ‘wrong’ because they fail to take into account the different aspects of their characters that tend to appear at odds with one another, something this author seems to have avoided. I also like that it doesn’t contain those fast clipped sentences which I find quite off-putting. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention.

    • You know, Cleo, I had the same feeling about this book: that Hart did a solid job of portraying the age group. It is a time of internal conflict and seeming inconsistencies, and I think he got that right. And if you are put off by short, clipped sentences, I think you’d find these a bit more to your liking. They’re not all long and flowing, but they aren’t staccato, either.

  3. I prefer this kind of ‘small’ thriller to the big international espionage or gang culture type of story. As you point out, it leaves more room for decent characterisation – a thing that is often skimped on in thrillers. This one sounds intriguing, especially with the youthful protagonist…

    • I think Hart handled Johnny’s character rather well, FictionFan, if I’m being honest. And I know exactly what you mean about the ‘smaller’ thriller as opposed to the ‘big conspiracy’ sort of thriller. The author does get to explore the characters more, and give them more solidity. If you do read this one, I hope you’ll be glad that you did.

  4. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg expounds on a gut-level, literary thriller!

  5. Margot, kudos again for bringing such a book to our attention. This appears to be a character-driven, literary thriller as opposed to a knock-down, drag-out, action-oriented work. Personally, this style novel appeals to me more than the “leaping from an overpass onto a moving train or bus” type book. This seems to have depth, compassion, and an innate “realness” to it. In short, a gripping novel with a gut-level connection. Thanks again!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Michael. And you’re right about the novel. It is a character-driven novel more than it is an action story. And the writing style is more literary. I think Hart took an interesting approach with this one, for just that reason. If you read it, I really hope you’ll be glad you did.

  6. Col

    I’ve not read anything by John Hart, but this does sound good. A TBR maybe…

  7. This definitely sounds like a book I’d enjoy. The characters seem to have a tug of war going on with themselves, especially Johnny who is torn between being a kid and having to act like an adult at times. Another one for the TBR list.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • You put that very well, Mason. Both Johnny and Clyde Hunt have interesting inner conflicts going on. And I think the story is a solid one. If you do read it, I hope you’ll be glad you did.

  8. I haven’t read anything by this author either. This sounds like a good one to try.

  9. Margot, this is an unsual thriller, I agree. I think the author took a risk, if I can put it that way, to write about a 13-year-old protagonist. I can picture the boy in YA fiction. I like the almost familial relationship between Johnny Merrimon and Detective Clyde Hunt. You want someone to look out for Johnny.

    • I like that aspect of their relationship, too, Prashant. It’s not hard to be on Johnny’s side, and he is, at times, quite vulnerable. So it is good to have someone looking out for him. You make a well-taken point, too, that Hart took a risk here. And I can certainly see how Johnny could fit into YA fiction in the right circumstances. This isn’t a ‘typical’ thriller (if there is one); that’s part of what adds to its interest.

  10. I want to know how a car crashed and a dying man popped out right by a person looking for the girl the man saw! Terribly convenient, but it still sounds good!

  11. I’m never sure, these days or perhaps ever, what the definition of “thriller” is. So when a book is labelled such, I find myself wishing for a more precise term. Reading your summary of the plot, I’d say this sounds like a straight mystery to me: girl disappears, search for her goes on, various characters are involved including police and regular citizens, and so on. I’m not sure where the thrill part would come in. Regardless, I’m quite intrigued by this one, and plan to seek it out. Thanks very much for the review.

    • You make an interesting point about the term ‘thriller,’ Richard. As I used it here, it has to do with the plot twists, and with some of the action. But there are, I am sure, people who wouldn’t call this a thriller. That said, whatever you call it, if you do read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  12. There are several aspects that really appeal here, although the children-in-jeopardy is always to be approached with caution. Your commenter above makes a fascinating point about what would work in a film versus a book – I think he or she is quite correct, though I hadn’t thought about it like that before.

    • Oh, I agree, Moira. That question of whether something would work better in a film is such an interesting one, especially when it comes to suspension of disbelief. As to this book, yes, the whole idea of children in jeopardy has to be done really carefully. I don’t think it’s done gratuitously here at all. However, each of us is different about that sort of thing.

  13. Pingback: We Suspend Our Disbelief* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  14. SteveHL

    I’ve read four of Hart”s novels, Margot, and the only one I wouldn’t recommend is Iron House, and even that seems to be generally well-regarded.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

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