Saturday, April 10, 2021


THE LAST CHILD by John Hart (John Murray, 2009)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon has to face things no boy his age should face. In the year since his twin sister's abduction his world has fallen apart: his father has disappeared and his fragile mother is spiralling into ever deeper despair. Johnny keeps strong. Armed with a map, a bike and a flashlight, he stalks the bad men of Raven County. The police might have given up on Alyssa; he never will. Someone, somewhere, knows something they're not telling.

Only one person looks out for Johnny. Detective Clyde Hunt shares his obsession with the case. But when Johnny witnesses a hit-and-run and insists the victim was killed because he'd found Alyssa, even Hunt thinks he's lost it.

And then another young girl goes missing ..

So here we are - the 100th day of the year, and the 100th day of the #100Days100Books challenge I set myself to start 2021, a bounce-back from my posting on Crime Watch being very sporadic last year.

I hope you've enjoyed some of the books covered, and the 14 editions of 9mm interviews that were woven throughout the challenge as well. I really enjoyed talking to these fantastic crime writers. 

I've gone back and forth on what to include here as the 100th and final book/author in this wee mini-challenge to myself. I felt it should be something special. Perhaps the new Penguin Classics edition of a Chester Himes book, that I read this week? I was even tempted when I woke up this morning and saw my Nelsonian booklover and blogger Alyson Baker - who regularly contributes to Crime Watch as a reviewer - had posted a review of my own book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, to maybe use that... 

In the end, I've instead decided to revisit and highlight a really superb novel that was one of my very, very favourites from my first few years of being a magazine/newspaper reviewer and blogger. A book that I'd been thinking about a fair bit lately, even though it came out 12 years ago. 

As I mentioned last week, recently I've been thinking about the best books of not just a single year, but an entire decade - thanks in part to a series that highly regarded book blogger Grab This Book (aka Gordon) has started, getting reviewers and writers to share books they'd add to a library of great tales.

Attorney-turned-author John Hart's third novel, THE LAST CHILD, would be one of my top contenders for best novel of the 2000s decade. To be honest, his second novel DOWN RIVER may be in the mix as well. He had an extraordinary start to his career, being shortlisted for the Edgars for each of his first three books, winning the Edgar for Best Novel twice (a rarity), for consecutive books.

In THE LAST CHILD, Johnny Merrimon is a thirteen-year-old boy who looks ten but has seen and endured more than most sixty-year-olds. His twin sister disappeared a year ago, his father cracked under the pressure and left, and his mother has given up; turning to drugs and a relationship with a rich but abusive man. A burnt-out cop tries to help but has his own issues, and Johnny finds himself alone on a vigilante mission. Then another young girl goes missing, and a dying man’s last words fuel Johnny’s long-held hope. Could the disappearances be linked? 

Can he finally find answers and heal his broken family? 

Sometimes when I read a novel that has received a lot of praise, I can be left a bit underwhelmed, even if I enjoy the story overall. That's happened again and again over the past 13 years of writing reviews for magazines and more. It's almost as if the expectations are raised too high, and the author has to knock it far out of the park to even make par (okay, mixed sporting metaphor there). 

But put simply, THE LAST CHILD is an exceptional novel; a literary crime thriller that is as much about its rich cast of layered, authentic and damaged characters as its intelligent and engrossing storyline. Hart writes beautifully, evoking aspects of the human condition alongside echoes of the Southern Gothic tradition, building his tale towards a surprising yet most fitting conclusion.

Huckleberry Finn meets James Lee Burke, all in a strong and unique narrative voice.

When I first read THE LAST CHILD over a decade ago, I thought it was a masterpiece. Revisiting it having read more than a thousand books since, it remains a standout crime novel. In the years since, Hart has produced several other terrific novels, and even revisited the characters of Johnny Merrimon and Jack Cross as young men in THE HUSH, a rural thriller with a touch of magic realism. 

For my money, John Hart is one of the finest crime writers in the game. He's not a book every year kind of author, but each of his novels has been well worth the wait. Go back to the beginning and try KING OF LIES, DOWN RIVER, and then THE LAST CHILD. If you like lyrical crime writing with chasm-deep characters, drenched in a Southern Gothic setting, you just may become a very big fan. Like me. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of Australian, Scottish, and NZ crime writing awards, and is co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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