Teen sleuth on a mission

John Hart had me at "I've."

That was the first word of the Greensboro lawyer-turned-novelist's impressive 2006 debut, "King of Lies," a mesmerizing legal thriller redolent of family secrets, sexual tension and betrayal set in Rowan County. He quickly and smartly followed that initial success in 2007 with the award-winning "Down River," an intricate story of political intrigue and murder.

Now, in "The Last Child" (St. Martin's, 384 pages), Hart goes inside the head of a pensive, whip-smart 13-year-old Sandhills boy who won't take no for an answer. That's because the question he keeps asking is: Do you think my missing twin sister is still alive?

Until Alyssa Merrimon disappeared the day her father uncharacteristically forgot to pick her up, brother Johnny had it pretty good, with loving parents, good grades and a blissfully symbiotic relationship with surrounding fields and woods and the critters therein. An amalgam of Opie Taylor and Scout Finch with a hint of Huck Finn comes to mind.

But all that normality explodes the moment the little girl vanishes. Johnny's father leaves town, devastated by guilt over his unusual lapse of responsibility, and the boy's beautiful mother takes to drink, drugs and the lackluster affections of the town lothario and bully.

"Now Johnny had to question all of it, everything he'd been taught with such conviction ... There was no such thing as justice, retribution or community. The church, cops, his mother -- none of them could make it right ... For a year, Johnny had lived the new, brutal truth. He was on his own."

Not quite. Johnny spends time scouring the town, knocking on doors. He even checks off the houses he has visited on a handmade map, putting an asterisk on those where he suspects "bad men" live. He is joined, mainly at a distance, by local cop Clyde Hunt.

At the cost of his marriage and his relationship with his own son and potentially his job -- and despite Johnny's repeated rejection of his help -- Detective Hunt has become as obsessed with Alyssa's disappearance as her brother has. When another young girl in town goes missing, the man and boy step up their sleuthing and, in the mix, uncover some terrible town secrets that unfold in a gripping climax.

"The Last Child" marks a solid new milestone in Hart's progression as a serious writer of mystery fiction. His story is poignant, painstakingly plotted and endlessly suspenseful. If the movie rights have not been sold, they should be soon.

'First Family'

Similarly, it's hard to see how the prolific (three best-sellers in the last year or so) David Baldacci's latest Washington thriller won't end up on the silver screen by this time next year. The high-concept plot of "First Family" (Grand Central Publishing, 464 pages) involves the kidnapping of the first lady's niece after a children's birthday party at Camp David.

Because she wants the hunt for and apprehension of the kidnapper kept "under the radar," for reasons personal and political, first lady Jane Cox hires the husband-and-wife private investigator team of Michelle Maxwell and Sean King. "First Family" is the former Secret Service agents' fourth appearance in a workmanlike series, and some readers will remember them from the time they saved Cox's then-senator husband from an assassin's plot.

'The Scarecrow'

Michael Connelly, another prolific best-seller who happens to be an ex-police reporter and continuing newspaper junkie, brings back one of his three popular series heroes in "The Scarecrow" ( Little, Brown, 384 pages). Many readers will remember reporter Jack McEvoy from his exploits in two earlier Connelly whodunits, "The Poet" (1996) and "The Narrows" (2004), whose events are referenced in the latest book.

McEvoy, like many of his colleagues at the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers around the country, has been laid off as part of cost-cutting efforts. Predictably bitter about his own and his profession's fate, McEvoy decides to finish his career with a blockbuster story about a gangbanger who, it turns out, has been wrongly accused of raping and murdering a stripper. As he gets deep into his reporting, McEvoy uncovers a bigger story involving a familiar demonic villain and insidious computer crime from an unexpected source.

By mixing chapters narrated by Jack and the character who has become his predator and prey, Connelly increases the story's tension to barely bearable. He throws into this heady mix FBI agent Rachel Walling, who worked with Jack before and co-stars frequently in Connelly stories featuring his most popular series hero, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch.

Anyone who reads "The Scarecrow" and still thinks newspapers (as in news on paper) are a commodity whose time has passed needs to read it again. I'm lookin' at you, bloggers, Kindlers and Tweeters.

Gaslight Crime

The game will definitely be afoot for hard-core mystery buffs who pick up "The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime" (Penguin, 336 pages), a nifty little anthology of the best of mostly American and British crime fiction from the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Edited with commentaries by popular science writer Michael Sims ("Adam's Navel," "Darwin's Orchestra"), the collection emphasizes the misdeeds of such legendary thieves, conmen/women and caper artists as Ernest William Hornung's A.J.Raffles, Edgar Wallace's Four-Square Jane and George Randolph Chester's Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford. There are also some odd-lot writers not often associated with the genre, such as H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and O. Henry, thrown in for good measure.