As an avid reader of crime fiction, I’m not easily rattled by dark content. I have my limits — I avoid reading about torture when I can, for instance — but I don’t mind violence when it’s intelligently used in service of a good story. The Four Last Things by Andrew Taylor pushed the limit for me. It’s a good book, extremely suspenseful and well-paced and hard to put down, but I’m not sure that I’m glad to have read it.
The crime at the center of the book is the abduction of 4-year-old Lucy Appleyard. Lucy is the daughter of Sally, who just started a job as curate in an Anglican parish in London, and Michael, a police detective. The chapters, all in third person, alternate between the stories of Sally and of Eddie, the man who took Lucy. As the story goes on, we learn of Eddie’s history and the events that led up to the abduction and his actions afterward. And we watch Sally as she frets with guilt over Lucy’s disappearance and the strain in her marriage.
As long as the book was focused on Sally, I was fine, although that half of the narrative was the most straightforward and the least absorbing. Her narrative gets at the all-too-common story of maternal guilt at working away from home, with the added combination of taking a job as clergy, which many consider inappropriate, even sinful, for a woman. In fact, during Sally’s first Sunday at her new church, a woman interrupted her sermon, yelling, “She-devil. Blasphemer against Christ. Apostate.”
For Sally, the mystery gets more intense and worrying when a little girl’s hand appears on top of a gravestone. It’s not Lucy’s, but it’s worrying. And it’s not the last. Sally is torn by her relief when a body part turns out not to be Lucy’s and her guilt at not caring about the families of the other girls.
The families of the other girls are annoyingly absent from the narrative. There’s a throwaway line early on about how Lucy’s disappearance would make headlines because of who her parents were. And that’s probably true, but we learn nothing about the other girls. It’s a strange hole in the story, mostly a side effect of not being about the detectives working the case.
Where the book pushed me was in the chapters about Eddie. I’ve read plenty of novels from the criminal’s point of view, but there were elements of Eddie’s back story that I found troubling, almost seeming to blame the women in his life for the way he turned out. I understand that this probably was meant to be Eddie’s own perspective, but that wasn’t always clear. What’s more, he sort of turns out to be the good guy in this half of the narrative. His collaborator, Angel, is on a whole other level. And what she’s up to mixes murder and religion in a way that made me nauseous. I almost put the book down more than once, when it went just a step too far. But I also wanted to see that Lucy survived (and couldn’t bring myself to skip to the end, in case she didn’t).
The book is part of a trilogy, which can be read in any order and actually go backward in time. The ending raises some questions that, as disturbed as I was by this book, also left me curious. So maybe I’ll read more?