Book Review - The Last Child delivers family drama

Author John Hart offers a page-turning mystery just in time for the beach

Sunday May 17, 2009 12:00 pm EDT

Despite what the title suggests, The Last Child is the story of two adolescents. Alyssa Merrimon has disappeared from a Southern town and left her teenage twin brother, Johnny, alone amid the wreckage of their family. Alyssa's mysterious vanishing causes Johnny to disappear in a way, too. His life is forever changed as he becomes obsessed with finding his only sister. Johnny's single-minded mission is the focus of the new thriller from John Hart, a potboiler writer in the lawyer-turned-scribe tradition of John Grisham.   

Johnny's problems aren't limited to his missing sister, however. His mother sleeps her drug binges off during the day, while he buys groceries with the rolled-up dollar bills he finds in the kitchen. As his compulsive search for Alyssa grows into a system of detailed maps and late-night investigations, schoolwork and decent sleep fall by the wayside. Johnny's earnest dedication leads him into a series of increasingly dangerous situations. He witnesses deadly car wrecks and tracks a mysterious, possibly murderous man. The Last Child's main strength is Hart's clean, unencumbered prose, which keeps the action moving at a nimble pace despite the well-tread plot.  

It's easy to like the strong-willed and loyal Johnny. He possesses that adolescent combination of insecurity and self-righteousness, a perspective Hart's writing captures for the most part. Johnny's methodical inspection of his uncle's apartment reveals a string of teenage fascinations, "vodka in the freezer, a bag of pot in the casserole dish ... a hunting knife on the floor ... a sex manual on the shelf." Hart's even-handed realism is a pleasure, albeit occasionally interrupted by ungraceful, explanatory statements such as "Johnny had a great fear of lone men in stopped cars."

Unfortunately, not all the characters are as well developed as the protagonist. Detective Hunt is the typical concerned cop, mildly tortured by his inability to help find Alyssa. Ken, the boyfriend of Johnny's mother, is simply monochromatic — a bad guy with a taste for drugs and beating up defenseless kids.

Hart's story has a chance to explore the torture of losing a sibling, but focuses mainly on action and investigation, not deep observation. The Last Child isn't Southern lit, even with a few To Kill a Mockingbird allusions worked into its plot. It is, however, a page-turning mystery delivered just in time for the beach.

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