4 stars out of 5
This debut novel initially got my attention in part because the main character, Julia Gooden, is a crime reporter at a Detroit newspaper. Although I rarely found myself on the crime beat (except perhaps following up on an errant local politician), I spent much of my career as a journalist/newspaper editor. Besides that, the place I hail from, like Detroit, has suffered the effects of a failing industrial base. Add that to an intriguing description, and I was doubly delighted to receive an advance copy from the author and publisher (via NetGalley) in exchange for an unbiased review.
During her early years, Julia and her two-years-older brother Ben were dirt poor, living in a seedy part of town. Their only joy, it seemed, came from occasional visits to a local amusement park; when anything came close to threatening Julia, Ben intervened and promised to protect her forever. But one night when he was nine, he was abducted from the bedroom they shared, never to be seen or heard from again. Julia remembers almost nothing about the night of his disappearance, and she carries the devastation she feels over to her current life as a reporter with two young sons, of whom she's overly protective (to put it mildly). Her husband has walked out largely because of the lengths to which she'll go to keep them safe. That's because, she says, she's afraid that even now - 30 years later - whoever took her brother will come back to get her sons.
And as bad luck would have it, her greatest fear comes true; her two-year-old son Will is taken from his bed. Needless to say, Julia is devastated; at the same time, she suspects the two kidnappings are related - and she sets out to prove it. She's gets some help from the local police - most notably from a detective with whom she had a pre-marriage fling back when he worked on the case of her missing brother. But even though he tends to agree there's a possible connection, few clues turn up that could lead to finding the culprit in either disappearance. Julia, however, is determined to do whatever it takes to get to the truth and, first and foremost, find her son alive ("This time I'm not the one who's chasing the story. It's the story that's chasing me," she says).
It's a story that hooked me right from the start as well. The writing is outstanding, the characters are well developed, and the excitement kept building to the point that I couldn't wait to get to the end. But just as I got there, I got hit with a sucker-punch. I liken the feeling to watching a baseball as it heads toward the fence for a sure-fire home run; as I'm halfway out of my seat to cheer wildly, it swerves to the left and goes foul.
Exactly why that happened I can't explain without spoiling things for other readers (and I hasten to add that I expect many of them to disagree with my assessment anyway). What I can say is that the way the "holes" in Julia's memory bank are filled in with regard to the night her brother disappeared, coupled with physical feats that far exceed human capability, left me shaking my head. My disappointment was greater, I'm sure, because I so much enjoyed the rest of the book.
And despite my misgivings about the ending, I still recommend it. As I said before, not everyone will share my opinion (if you read it, which I hope you do, you'll understand why).
The Last Time She Saw Him by Jane Haseldine (Kensington, June 2016); 368 pp.