The Edgar Awards Revisited: The Last Child (Best Novel, 2010)
By Adam WagnerJanuary 31, 2020
With The Last Child, John Hart became the first and only author to win an Edgar Award for Best Novel on consecutive novels.
Grief. Despair. Depression. Hope. One unspeakable tragedy has the ability to affect countless individuals in varying ways. And while everyone effected reacts in their own way, it’s ultimately how one responds and recovers from the trials and tribulations of tragedy that shapes themselves and their future. Do you give up and run away? Sink so deeply into depression that self-medication seems the only way to cope? Or do you never lose hope, pushing yourself forward and digging deep for some sort of strength to carry on?
These sorts of questions are at the crux of John Hart’s The Last Child. Published in 2009 and taking home the Edgar, Anthony, and Barry Award for Best Novel, The Last Child is so much more than a crime novel. This literary thriller uses a devastating kidnapping to examine how a family, their friends, and their community react to tragedy while also exploring familial relationships (specifically father/son relationships), personal faith, young friendships, and coming of age. Hart impressively packs all of this into an engrossing story that fully transports readers into a twisting, heartbreaking mystery that creates a sense of both wanting to finish but needing more.
Set in a small town in the hill country of North Carolina (where John Hart grew up), the story is set one year after the tragic abduction of 12-year-old Alyssa Merrimon. A lot has happened in the year after the kidnapping. Told from the point of view of Alyssa’s twin brother, Johnny Merrimon, readers are dropped squarely into the aftermath of the abduction where it’s revealed that Johnny’s family life has fallen apart.
Johnny has had to grow up quickly. Not only has his sister been kidnapped and never found, but his father also ran out on the family due to grief (he was blamed by the mother because he was supposed to pick her up from school that day), and his mother has resorted to alcohol and painkillers as means to coping. Hart ratchets the heartbreak immediately, making it clear in the first paragraph of Chapter One that Johnny has developed a world-weary hardness that no 13-year-old should require.
Johnny learned early. If somebody asked him why he was so different, why he held himself so still and why his eyes seemed to swallow light, that’s what he’d tell them. He learned early that there was no safe place. Not the backyard or the playground, not the front porch or the quiet road that grazed the edge of town. No safe place, and no one to protect you.
Childhood was illusion.
Johnny does his best to be the man of the house, but his mom is rarely conscious enough to notice his attempts to protect her—both from herself and from her abusive boyfriend, real-estate big shot Ken Holloway, who pays her way and supplies her drugs to keep her compliant.
Only Detective Clyde Hunt seems to take Johnny’s best interests to heart. He was the lead on Alyssa’s kidnapping case, and his failure to find her has taken its toll, resulting in his wife leaving him, his own son to resenting him, and his boss warning him of its effect on his job performance. Hunt’s crush on Johnny’s mom, Katherine, doesn’t help matters, but it does explain his affection for the family and his continued insistence to look after them and continue searching for Alyssa.
Johnny still holds out hope that his sister is alive, and he uses his situation to skip school and sneak out of the house—usually with his best friend, Jack, providing support—to search for known pedophiles in the area, following up on leads and adding or eliminating suspects as needed. Hart’s 13-year-old protagonist shows a maturity and understanding that borders on implausible but never crosses the line or detracts from the story. Rather, it portrays the dogged determination of someone who has seemingly lost everything, who truly believes that solving this problem will solve all of the related problems and return life to its blissful beginnings before tragedy struck. This desperate determination, then, becomes heartbreaking when viewed through the lens of a child trying everything to not only find his sister but bring his family back together.
Then, everything changes when another girl goes missing. Both Johnny and Detective Hunt understand that this new case could be connected and that finding her could result in finding out what happened to Alyssa. When Johnny witnesses a man thrown from his motorcycle off a bridge, the man claims to have found “her.”
With a surprising strength, he pulled the boy closer. “I found her.”
Johnny focused on the man’s lips. “You found who?”
“The girl that was taken.”
This “accident” serves as the catalyst that sends this mystery hurtling towards its conclusion, with disparate threads connecting unexpectedly and red herrings reaching dead ends throughout. The novel practically begs to be finished in a single sitting but will stick with you for weeks to follow as you consider all of the symbolism, imagery, and emotion contained within its pages. Hart has accomplished something truly special with The Last Child, an entertaining novel that reads like a thriller but is full of thought-provoking themes, eye-opening explorations of grief, and a heartbreaking tale of family and friendship that is sure to keep it at the top of reading lists for years to follow.
Notes from the 2010 Edgar Awards:
- With the win, John Hart became the first and only author to win an Edgar Award for Best Novel on consecutive novels (his previous novel, Down River, took home the Edgar for Best Novel in 2008).
- The Last Child beat out The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, The Odds by Kathleen George, Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston, Nemesis by Jo Nesbø, and A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn to win Best Novel.
- Minotaur Books also took home the Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author with Stefanie Pintoff’s In the Shadow of Gotham.
- Otto Penzler won the Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biography with The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives.
- The late Dorothy Gilman hosted the awards as Grand Master.
- Patrick Harbinson’s titular episode from the PBS series Place of Execution beat out an episode of both Dexter and Breaking Bad to win the Edgar Award for Best Episode in a TV Series.
- S.J. Bolton’s Awakening won the Mary Higgins Clark Award.
- Barbara Peters won the Ellery Queen Award for her Poisoned Pen Press.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as Angie Barry returns to review The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton, the 2011 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.