D.G. MARTIN: Soon to Be North Carolina's Best-Selling Author: John Hart
This time three years ago nobody in the literary world had ever heard of John Hart.
In Salisbury, where he grew up and practiced law for a time, and in Greensboro, where he worked in finance and investments, people thought well of him.
But only a few people outside his family and close friends knew that he had taken a year off from work to write full-time on a novel that came to be titled "The King of Lies."
Those who knew what he was doing had high hopes, of course. However, the chances that a lawyer or businessperson can write a best-selling novel are about the same as the chances to win the lottery.
Hart "won the lottery." When "The King of Lies" came out in 2006, it made The New York Times best-seller list and was nominated for an Edgar award for the best "mystery fiction" book.
His second book, "Down River," made the best-seller lists in 2007. It won an Edgar.
In the world of mystery novels, Hart is now known everywhere.
Now the world will get to know this North Carolinian even better as his new novel, "The Last Child," hits the bookstores.
His publisher has printed 175,000 copies and plans a promotion campaign that will guarantee a third best-seller.
What is the secret of Hart's success? He writes compelling, complicated, tricky stories that feature engaging characters. Some people compare him to John Grisham. Others emphasize the literary quality of his writing, comparing him to Thomas Wolfe.
Like his first two books, "The Last Child" is set in North Carolina. However, instead of Salisbury, where the action of the first two books centered, the new book's setting is a fictional Raven County, which has some characteristics of the Sandhills, the Coastal Plains, and the Piedmont.
The central character is Johnny Merrimom, a 13-year-old boy whose twin sister, Alyssa, has been missing for a year and is presumed to be a kidnap victim. Johnny and his mom are distraught. His father disappears. His mother then falls victim to an affair with the town's richest man, who abuses her emotionally, physically and sexually.
The local police investigate Alyssa's disappearance. One officer, in particular, develops an interest in Johnny and his mother. But the police have no leads. So Johnny mounts his own investigation, one that focuses on known sexual predators in town.
His activities are dangerous and disruptive, but they result in solving one kidnapping case and the death of an active kidnapper-pedophile.
Some early reviews compare Johnny to Huck Finn. But Johnny's troubled independence and tenacity reminded me more of 11-year old Mark Sway, who took on the FBI and the Mafia in John Grisham's "The Client" -- or of the 14-year-old Joel who drives his little brother all over Eastern North Carolina searching for their mom in Michael Parker's "If You Want Me to Stay."
The solution to the crime of Johnny's missing sister is illusive and surprising. It should be very satisfying for connoisseurs of mystery writing.
An important trick in mystery fiction is to lead the reader gently into a condition in which impossible or highly unlikely events are made believable. Hart has become a master magician, so much so that when he has a man with important information about Johnny's sister's location fall from a bridge into Johnny's arms, this reader believed it was a normal coincidence.
Maybe these mystery story-telling gifts are reasons for Hart's great success. But his attention to language and tempo, his descriptions of settings and people, and his development of characters and their personal relationships all add a wonderful richness to his work. It is a richness that should make "The Last Child" a pleasure for any reader.
D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. This week's (May 3) guest is Joe Glatthaar, author of "General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse."
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