Thirteen-year-old Johnny’s twin sister Alyssia disappeared a year ago. Katherine, his beautiful mother, could not cope with the strain and has become a fragile, hysterical addict; and his father, wracked by guilt as he was late to collect the girl from school on the fatal day, abandoned his family in the aftermath. Katherine and Johnny are in their separate ways dominated by the tragedy – Katherine has retreated into a world of prescription drugs and alcohol, and into dependency on the abusive but powerful Ken Holloway. Johnny spends his time either looking after his mother, driving to the supermarket for supplies and making her breakfast as well as trying to keep Holloway away from her (at whatever cost to himself), or skipping school to search systematically for his lost sister with his collection of talismans and map of the neighbourhood.
An observer of this tragically broken family is Clyde Hunt, a local detective. He keeps an eye on Johnny, offering help when he can. Hunt, too, is plagued by guilt as he was in charge of the investigation when Alyssia was lost, but failed to find her. As a result of his subsequent inability to drop the case, his wife left him and his 18-year-old son now hates him. One theme running through the book is Hunt’s feelings about Katherine – many characters assume they are having an affair, or that Hunt’s refusal to drop the Alyssia case is because of his feelings for her mother – but in fact he is as much drawn to the serious, imaginative and brave boy of the family, and admires Johnny’s commitment to his search for his sister.
This slow spiral into misery and despair is disrupted when Johnny witnesses a fatal hit-and-run car accident. Before the victim dies, he says to Johnny “I know where she is”, which the boy takes to refer to his sister. Not only does Hunt find himself investigating the crash but he is also searching for Johnny, who has run off to continue his quest, armed with his new scrap of knowledge.
The Last Child is a compelling story with many interconnecting threads – partly a traditional detective novel and partly a study of the emotional after-effects of a devastating occurrence on a family and those associated with them. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, particularly the character of Johnny and the imaginary world and mission he has created for himself after his life was shattered and his realisation that he can trust nobody. Some parts of the plot work very well, others less so – but this book is an overwhelmingly good read, and it is certainly easy to forgive the inconsistencies and unlikely elements. In the end, two separate crimes have to be solved in order for the truth to emerge; even though the solution to Alyssia’s disappearance is not a surprise, its unveiling has real emotional power. And the journey of Katherine, from despair into something else, as she and Johnny gradually learn more of the truth and have to revise their assumptions, is very moving. As she says to her son, “There is always more to lose”; this author conveys the impact of human loss with great empathy, while at the same time providing a page-turner with many satisfying overlapping elements.
The book has won much praise and some prestigious awards, including the Edgar prize for best novel 2010, and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for 2009.