The Quiet Child by John Burley is a gripping and darkly psychological novel about family, suspicion, and the price we are willing to pay to protect those we love the most (available August 8, 2017).
Wherever six-year-old Danny McCray goes, bad things seem to follow. People in the small town of Cottonwood, California, have been taking ill from various diseases at an alarming rate since his birth—especially those closest to him, such as his mother. It sounds crazy, but in this 1950s town, the little boy who has never spoken a word has been ostracized as poisonous.
After Danny and his 10-year-old brother Sean are kidnapped as their father’s car is stolen during a grocery run, many townsfolk feel it’s for the best.
[Read Brian Bandell's review of The Quiet Child…]
One of the few people in Cottonwood who fights for the boys’ return is Jim Kent, a volunteer part-time sheriff who spends most of his time as a plumber. The 65-year-old finds that even the McCray’s neighbor harbors misgivings about the boys after she suffered a miscarriage while babysitting Danny.
“You used to babysit the boys when they were younger.”
“I did,” she said. “and I can tell you this: if any harm has come to Danny McCray, he doesn’t deserve it.”
Jim turned to look at the house next door. “I’m glad to hear you say that. Not everyone in this town thinks the way you—“
“But he is broken,” she continued. “Anyone who spends time with him can see that.”
“He didn’t come out right.” She placed the palm of her right hand on her stomach. “The McCrays aren’t the only ones who’ve had to pay for that.”
Jim tucked his thumbs into his belt. “If you’ve seen anything…”
“I’ve seen plenty, and so have you.” She shook her head, leaned against the wooden frame of the door. “Broken things can hurt people.” She glanced over at her neighbor’s front yard, at the child’s bike left lying in the grass. “They need to be fixed,” she said. “or they need to be put away.”
At another point before Jim prepares to leave on a trip into the mountains on the trail of the kidnapper, his wife asks him whether the McCray family is worth his effort.
Outwardly, the McCrays don’t seem like bad people. Kate McCray grew up in Cottonwood and was a graceful young mother until shortly after Danny’s birth when signs of ALS started taking hold. Michael McCray is a teacher who frequently fantasizes about the days when Kate was healthy and beautiful. While he tries denying it, Michael hears how the townsfolk blame Danny for Kate’s illness, and he grapples over how to deal with a son who won’t speak to him. Michael remembers his life as better before Danny, but he still loves his sons and is willing to drive into the mountains to find them. Older brother Sean, on the other hand, is most supportive of Danny and tries valiantly to fight off the adult kidnapper before he too is snatched into the car.
Soon, even the kidnapper finds that taking a child who causes harm to those around him, supposedly without intention, may be hazardous to his health.
In writing this novel, John Burley shows his expertise as an emergency medicine physician with excellent descriptions of illnesses and their side effects, plus the bloody wounds that occur once bullets start flying. The action scenes are thrilling as he jumps between character points of view and keeps the reader guessing what their motivations are. Most of the flashbacks are well-placed, showing the fears and aspirations of the characters. Yet, there are some places where Burley echoes too much, repeating scenes from earlier in the book to drive home a point.
That didn’t detract from my enjoyment of The Quiet Child. The deeper I read into the story, the harder it was to put the book down.
Burley also did strong historical research to show how a detective would pursue a case in 1954. Tracing phone calls is easy now, but it was a real chore back then when operators had to route every individual call. How the times have changed.
The Quiet Child raises a moral dilemma using a superstition that lurks at the back of the mind, that of a person who’s a curse on those around them. The story has a surprising twist, one that works well for the plot, but it’s an action that I don’t think makes a lot of sense for the character to take if this person truly thought through all the ramifications. Desperate people can do desperate things, though.
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Brian Bandell is the senior reporter at the South Florida Business Journal and the author of Mute and Famous After Death from Silver Leaf Books http://www.silverleafbooks.com/Authors_Bandell.htm. You can follow him @brianbandell