The Great American Road Trip
Destination: North Carolina (The Sand Hills)
Book: The Last Child by John Hart (2009) Winner of this year’s Edgar Awards for best Mystery Novel
John Hart nails the small towns of central North Carolina in the gripping mystery, [amazon_link id="0312642369" target="_blank" ]The Last Child.[/amazon_link] I have never visited the Sandhills, but my curiosity is piqued. The Sandhills mark an ancient ocean front–leftover dunes separate the Piedmont zone from the coastal plains. The aberration of geography creates a place of eerie charm but not much wealth.
I am intrigued by the fact that I came away with a clear view of the area and the people, but paragraphs of description are nearly non-existent in the book. The author skillfully led me into the heart of the Sandhills by dialogue and story.
For those who like their literature to come in neat categories, Hart’s novels sit in the box called “Southern Gothic.” For us here at A Traveler’s Library, his book is a destination mystery, a tour guide to one of the stops on the road trip, a different kind of travel literature. But I must admit, I couldn’t be happier when a book goes WAY beyond the criteria of recreating a place and culture. The Last Child scores on several fronts–fascinating and original characters, a plot to keep you breathing hard (or holding your breath), and delightfully readable writing.
The child of the title is a modern day Huck Finn, with a whole lot more book smarts. His twin sister disappeared a year ago, his family fell apart and his mother is kept in a dazed-by-drugs condition by the local power broker. Johnny decides to take the law in his own hands, despite the attempts of the leading good guy/ police detective to protect the kid from himself.
Everybody knows everybody in this rural county, which sometimes makes the policeman’s job easier and sometimes harder. Having a 13-year-old drive the plot puts a unique twist on what could be a familiar pattern of police procedural. But no danger of boring structure from Hart, who is an ambitious writer who does not take the easy way out with his writing. While the kid has enough good traits to make us cheer for him, there is nothing saccharine here, and sometimes you want to shake him.
More bad guys and more dead bodies than any county should have to cope with keep the reader guessing and the pages turning.
Hart posts updates on his books at his website, and The Last Child seems to have won awards nearly every month since it first appeared in review copies. His prior novels, King of Lies and Down River both won Edgar awards, also. (Not just a nomination–the top award.)
The picture to the right comes courtesy of Hart’s web site, and the picture above from the site of the North Carolina Sandhills Weed Management Area. I owe gratitude to the publisher for providing the review copy of this book, and to the publicist for the Edgar Awards, Lisa Richardson, for alerting me to the finalist mysteries with strong sense of place.
I have written previously about the Edgar nominees, and my personal favorite Jo Nesbo, however, John Hart definitely deserves all those kudos he receives. ( But Jo Nesbo definitely has the coolest web site!)
Of courese there are mountains in North Carolina, too, and Music Road finds music for the Road Trip all over North Carolina. Pick up your music at Music Road.
Have you traveled to the North Carolina Sandhills? Share your experiences. Should we go?