The Last Thing I Remember, By Andrew Klavan Thomas Nelson, $14.95, 346 pp.
The Last Child, By John Hart Minotaur, $24.95, 337 pp.
Just as director J.J. Abrams restored the box office mojo of the Star Trek franchise with a young, distinctly American hero, two of today's finest suspense novelists, Andrew Klavan and John Hart, are accomplishing much the same thing at your local bookstore.
Hart’s The Last Child is darker and written for the adult market, while Klavan’s The Last Thing I Remember is geared toward “young adult” readers. Still, both are appropriate for teens and older audiences. The books feature heroes who are courageous, resourceful and willing to buck misguided authority -- and whose internal crises of faith are nearly as worrisome as the outside evil that confronts them.
For the past few years, suspense novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan (Don’t Say a Word) has been standing athwart the anti-American, conservative-demonizing and anti-heroic elements of popular culture and yelling “Stop!” His columns on Pajamas Media, which are also featured on the website Big Hollywood, are must reading.
Klavan's 2008 novel Empire of Lies featured a middle-class American Christian everyman who had to battle the mainstream media, law enforcement agencies buffaloed by politically correct convention and his own sinful nature to take down a radical "Middle Eastern Studies" professor who was plotting to back up his violent anti-American rhetoric with action.
Now, with The Last Thing I Remember, Klavan turns his attention to young skulls full of mush, hoping to inspire the same values in them that he defended in Empire.
Charlie West finds himself tied to a chair and being tortured and interrogated by men who demand answers to questions he has no clue about and who drop hints at jihadist tendencies. Despite their hostility to the U.S., the antagonists are clearly homegrown
But Charlie has no idea how he got there. In fact, the last thing he remembers is one of his best days of his high school career, in which he wowed a student assembly with his martial arts demonstration and secured a future date with the girl of his dreams.
How Charlie goes to bed as a happy middle-class church-going kid bound for the Air Force and wakes up in a torture chamber makes for the most exciting book written for a younger audience in many moons.
The story is ingenious, intricate and full of surprises -- and I’ve told you too much already. Just think The Fugitive meets Empire of Lies with just a touch of The Prisoner and The Hardy Boys, and you’ll get the general idea.
So for that long drive on the summer trip, turn off the DVD player and iPods for a while, then hand the kids copies of The Last Thing I Remember. Their complaining will last for only about a minute. In fact, your biggest problem after that may be getting them to put the book down when the planned family activities are supposed to commence.
Meanwhile, those in the front seat, when it’s not your turn to drive, should check out John Hart’s great new mystery, The Last Child. If you decide it’s age-appropriate for your kids, you can pass it to the back seat when you are done. In fact, you should trade:
Don’t let the young adult label keep you from a great read.
In recent years, Hart has established himself as the master of the Southern mystery, going a long ways toward rescuing it from the hackery of John Grisham and David Baldacci. His legal thriller, The King of Lies, was universally well-received, but he immediately outdid it with Down River, a story about the wrongly accused scion of the most prominent family in a small Southern town. More than a mere mystery, Down River is a literary powerhouse that won the Edgar Award for best novel.
The Last Child raises Hart's artistic bar even higher, with a young hero who is drawing comparisons to Huck Finn —though he’s a much more serious person. And while comparisons to Mark Twain may be a bit much, if there are more than a handful of mysteries this year that are better than The Last Child, it will be a banner year for the genre.
Johnny Merrimon, 13, has been let down by every authority figure he has been brought up to trust in his small North Carolina town. A year after the disappearance of his twin sister, Alyssa, the adults around him have given her up for dead and gone on to other things.
His family has disintegrated -- his hitherto devoted father suddenly vanished one night, and his mother has descended into chemical relief and an abusive affair with a rich local businessman who likes to throw his weight around.
The police are no longer searching for the girl; and Clyde Hunt, the one detective still on the case, seems to have mixed motives because of his interest in Johnny’s mother. Teachers and counselors are treating him as if he has mental problems, and his sudden interest in the pagan warrior ethic gives them plenty of material to work with.
But Johnny has a firm belief that while the life of his sister is in jeopardy, he can have no other considerations or compelling interests. He sneaks out at night, cuts class and steals every moment he can to search for Alyssa.
When another girl disappears, the town and authorities again are motivated to action, but it is Johnny who is in the best position to solve the case while the adults — save for Hunt –continue to dismiss him as an obsessive weirdo.
Along with his best friend, another mistreated loner who was the sole witness to Allysa’s disappearance, Johnny takes matters into his own hands. He decides it is up to him to save his sister and his mom, dreaming it will restore his family. But Johnny’s salvation will come from a completely unexpected source.
Johnny uncovers a ghastly set of crimes, but the key to his personal quest lies in a 100-year-old act of violence and a heroic ancestor who also stood alone for the right thing.
The Last Child has a great plot, but it has far more to offer. This is a story of redemption, faith, the hand of God, justice, forgiveness and the primary duty of adults to protect the innocent.
Both Johnny Merrimon and Charlie West believe it doesn’t matter what people think of you; when the lives of innocents are at stake, nothing is more important than protecting them. And while neither is perfect, each ultimately is willing to put himself on the line for truth, justice and the American Way, even when that’s the hard thing to do. What more could you ask for in a summer book hero?