John Hart’s “The Last Child”

Today, the Washington Post runs my review of John Hart’s third — and in my opinion best — novel, The Last Child. While I generally enjoyed Hart’s first two novels, The King of Lies and Down River, those books still struck me as uneven at best, often slipping into melodrama, and their mysteries seemed marred by solutions that most readers probably figured out about eighteen steps ahead of the narrators themselves. I was amazed and even a little disappointed (I’ll admit it) when Down River won the Edgar for best novel a couple of years back. In contrast, however,  The Last Child seems to have put aside any clumsiness and keeps the surprises coming at a furious pace. I rushed through this new novel at a fast clip myself, enjoying every moment, and soon after submitting my review, I had the opportunity to hear some of the audiobook version, read by Scott Sowers, and got pulled in again!

Want a longer assessment of Hart’s novels? Look for my upcoming essay in the North Carolina Literary Review, in which I try to come to terms with why the author’s first two books found such critical and commercial success despite being matched, at the Edgars for example, against far superior mysteries.

Don’t agree with my digs at those first books? Well, even The Last Child has illustrated for me that it’s tough to find consensus among critics. My own review calls it an “early masterpiece” in Hart’s hopefully much longer career; critic Sarah Weinman of the L.A. Times and the Baltimore Sun said that she remained “amazed at how his storytelling ability draws me into his North Carolina gothic tales”; and Rod Cockshutt at the Raleigh News & Observer began his glowing review with the phrase “John Hart had me at ‘I’ve’.” Meanwhile, on the other side, Marilyn Stasio‘s New York Times review concluded that “borrowing from Huck Finn doesn’t turn Hart into Mark Twain, and his methodical writing style plods along these Southern roads without kicking up anything but dust,” and my friend and fellow writer Laura Ellen Scott — whose opinions on all matters I greatly trust — admitted to me offline that she couldn’t get past the opening and simply put the book aside. 

A wide range of experiences with this book, to say the least, and a wide range of opinions all Hart’s novels.

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