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[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel—see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: John Hart

Minotaur, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

The Last Child follows 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon on his unceasing quest to find out what happened to his twin sister, Alyssa, who disappeared one year before the novel begins. Since her disappearance, Johnny’s life has taken a sharp downturn: his father left and his mother has taken up with an evil new lover.

The narrative switches between Johnny and Detective Clyde Hunt, who was assigned to Alyssa’s case and never solved it. Hunt still feels responsible for Alyssa’s disappearance and the wretched state of Johnny’s life, and he does all he can to protect Johnny and his mother.

Despite underwhelming prose and a few hiccups along the way, Child is a ferociously compelling mystery, full of suspense and tension. Of the five Edgar books I’ve read so far, Child is by far the best.

Let me get the hiccups out of the way first. First, there are Hart’s prose pitfalls, most noticeably an amateurish way of describing things in incomplete sentences, like this description of a bike:

Cold metal and rust. Rubber rotted through.

And here’s Hart’s oft-repeated but nonsensical moral refrain:

Darkness is a cancer of the human heart.

These attempts to be poetic or eloquent usually fall flat, and the prose calls more attention to itself that perhaps it should. But the dialogue is pretty good, and by halfway through the novel Hart’s great knack for suspense covers his minor sentence-level weaknesses.

A little more detrimental are a couple of character choices Hart makes. The evil lover who takes up with Johnny’s mother is the richest man in town, Ken Holloway. Instead of wooing the poor, broke woman with money, Holloway needlessly gets her addicted to drugs and controls her by keeping her high and powerless. Hart gives us a rationale as to why, but it’s thin, and the real reason for Holloway’s behavior is that Hart wants Johnny’s life to be as bad as possible in the novel’s beginning. It’s a pretty cheap trick.

Another character, Levi Freemantle, is a mentally handicapped man who hears voices, specifically the voices of God and the devil. That’s OK at first, but as God’s voice leads Levi to things he couldn’t possibly know, Levi slips from religious to supernatural. That’s a detriment for a mystery since it provides the constant possibility of an easy way out, but luckily Hart doesn’t let God solve the case.

All that said, the positives of this novel far outweigh those few quibbles. While some minor characters are a little flat, the two protagonists, Johnny and Hunt, are believable and unique, and the way Hart balances the crime-solving between them makes both essential.

Even better, Hart has a great talent for plotting, which makes this novel consistently entertaining and compelling. He lays down solid plot twists at regular intervals and milks his material for all the suspense it’s worth.

Child does suffer from a relatively slow start, but once it gets going, there are conspiracies, child molesters, possibly crooked cops, personal vendettas, power plays, and some good old-fashioned who-can-you-trust. By halfway through, we’re running downhill, and there are very few pauses in the tension from then until the very end.

That ending is, by the way, quite good. It’s not a world-beater, but it’s not a gimmick, and its roots stretch back through the entire novel. Basically, it makes one whole, neat piece of a twisting narrative, and satisfies without overreaching. That’s something more than one of these Edgar-nominated authors could take a lesson from.

The Last Child is a solid, ungimmicky mystery (ungimmicky except the slight tinge of the supernatural from Levi Freemantle). It’s a plot-before-character kind of book, but it knocks that plot out of the park.

Similar books: Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn; The Glister, by John Burnside

Edgar impact: If suspense is the primary attribute of an Edgar Award-winner, as it should be, The Last Child is leading the Best Novel pack.