There are few more emotive crimes than the abduction of a young child. On a personal level, it resonates with us because we have children, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews. And on a wider canvas, it brings home to us all just how fragile an innocent life can be. Indeed, it’s one of those crimes that many criminals find abhorrent.
It’s a subject to which novelists continue to return, which for more delicate readers might appear to be somewhat insensitive; and this in turn makes it imperative that a writer treats the issue with care and strikes a fine balance between engaging the reader’s emotions and not sensationalising the story for the sake of cheap thrills. With The Last Child, it’s a balance that John Hart has found with considerable skill.
The story opens one year on from the abduction of thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon’s twin sister, Alyssa. The intervening twelve months has seen his father walk out and not return, and his mother languishing in a drugs and alcohol-fuelled pit of despair and now sharing her bed with Ken Holloway, local bigwig entrepreneur and vicious bastard. Johnny, meanwhile, spends his nights trawling the streets, delving into the town’s seedy underbelly, convinced that he will find the person who has his sister.
Johnny’s only allies are his best friend, Jack, who follows him like a faithful hound, and a cop, Detective Clyde Hunt, who has two obsessions eating away at him from the inside – his failure to find Alyssa, and his love for Johnny’s mother.
Out by the river one day, Johnny witnesses a hit-and-run and becomes convinced that the victim was killed because he knew what happened to Alyssa. Everyone else is convinced he’s losing it. When another girl disappears, a lot of people suddenly become very interested in what young Johnny might have found out.
Hart sets up two or three threads early on, and you’re never quite sure whether they will come together, and if so, how. They ebb and flow in their significance, but his plotting is effortless, particularly the way in which the lumbering giant convict, Levi, comes stumbling into the story and impacts on everyone in some small way.
As Clyde and Johnny conduct separate investigations into the missing girl (Clyde because he is seeking redemption; Johnny because he believes the same person has his sister), their paths cross, both in their search for the girl and their bid to save Johnny’s mother from Holloway, who seems capable of just about anything.
It’s rare to find a book where the beautiful craft evident in the storyline is matched by the richness of its characters. On the face of it, the standout is Johnny – he carries the thrust of the narrative and he’s the natural one to root for. However, the real success here is Clyde, who early on comes over as the clichéd obsessed cop, and a single parent to boot, complete with teenage son with whom he can’t hold a conversation any longer than five seconds. But that opinion soon fades. Clyde might not be the sharpest cop in the precinct, but he’s dogged, and his dedication to Johnny’s mother – and Johnny – is real lump-in-the-throat material.
Despite the warmth Hart generates with his leads, and the beauty of his prose, make no mistake; this is a bleak story, one in which you will most likely demand vigilante justice several times over. Ultimately, it’s a tale about enduring love, the strength of family and the remarkable resilience of the human heart, and mind, to overcome devastating events. Regardless of how dark it might get, this is a story about hope, and how those closest to you will carry you when that hope fades. Highly recommended.