Back in 1999 the United States Department of Justice completed an extensive and comprehensive study into missing children. Within that time frame, approximately 800,000 children under 18 were reported missing. Seemingly more often than not, the child is abducted by a family member whereas a smaller number of kidnappings are perpetrated by non-family members or someone the child doesn’t know. I’m not sure what’s more terrifying, someone that the child trusts taking advantage of that relationship or a completely random act.
It’s during the first three hours that a child’s recovery is the most important, anytime after that, you’re putting them at serious risk. In 2006, a study found that over 75% of all children abducted are killed within those first few hours so when John Hart sat down to write “The Last Child”, picking up a year after Alyssa Merriman’s disappearance, he had some serious work in store for his characters.
I hadn’t heard of John Hart nor seen the praise heaped upon this book before it was recommended to me by a friend; without him I doubt I ever would’ve picked this up. Ah, the wonders of human recommendations – take that computer algorithms! Hart takes us to rural North Carolina a year after the disappearance of Alyssa Merriman. While many have given up hope for her safe return, her twin brother, 13 year old Johnny Merriman, has remained determined to find her.
Alyssa and Johnny’s mother, Katherine, fills the void left by her daughter’s disappearance with drugs and alcohol. Unable to stand the guilt associated with Alyssa’s abduction, Katherine’s husband splits, leaving a new psychotic boyfriend to pick up the pieces. The only thing worse than living with a psychopath is living with one who has an enormous amount of power and influence. Regularly abusing both Johnny and his mother, Ken Holloway keeps Katherine heavily medicated, rendering her unable to comprehend the situation she’s slipped into and with Holloway’s standing in the community, she’s seemingly helpless to change a thing.
This all ties into the lead officer assigned to the Merriman disappearance, Detective Clyde Hunt. Unable to locate Alyssa and bring her home, Hunt has been consumed by the case. He’s immersed himself so deeply and become so obsessed that he’s lost his wife and alienated his son. Being so determined to close the file, he’s remained close to the Merriman family and because of this, rumors have swirled that he’s harboring feelings for Katherine.
This only scratches the surface of what’s going on within these tightly edited 413 pages. At the risk of spoiling things, I’ll leave it there.
In The Last Child, Hart showcases a rich cast of supporting characters, all of whom are put through the wringer so to speak. The book itself is as much about the actions and reactions of each individual as it is about the disappearance of Alyssa Merriman. It almost feels like a literary Rubik’s Cube with each character trying to solve his or her own particular problem and by doing so, they’re screwing it up for everyone else when they shift directions.
I know it’s said a lot and can come across as a kind of reviewing cliche but I honestly didn’t see that ending coming. I’m interested in re-reading it at some point to see if I can spot any subtle hints Hart laid around leading up to the big reveal as I feel I was totally blindsided by the novel’s outcome.
Winning an Edgar Award in 2010, The Last Child is one of the few mystery novels I’ve read that isn’t a part of a longer series. Luckily for me Hart has three other novels to get my hands on, one of which also snagged him another coveted Edgar in 2008 as well.