Last Girl Gone

 

If you’ve never finished a book in one sitting, “Last Girl Gone” might be your first.

Local readers will especially find J.G. Hetherton’s debut novel captivating: a fictionalized Hillsborough is the setting of the thriller, released this month by Crooked Lane Books.

The novel opens at Occoneechee Speedway in the 1980s, and you practically smell the cigarettes and hear the roar of the crowd as young Patty Finch searches for an opening to escape her crummy life with an abusive mother.

The Eno River makes many cameos in the book, as does Orange High.

Laura Chambers, the heroine and centerpiece in what is the first book in a trilogy-in-the-making, graduated from Orange in the mid-aughts, having taken the first chance she had to go north to Boston, where she ended up an ascendent star reporter at the Boston Globe before an incident stifled her meteoric rise.

She is now home in Hillsborough working for the Hillsborough Gazette, a fictionalized newspaper very loosely based on the one you are reading right now. She’s bored with her mundane assignments until tragedy strikes, and she finds herself competing with a male counterpart – her nemesis, the town mayor’s son – to get the scoop.

Soon, the adventure leads her places that I can assure you no News of Orange reporter, past or present, has ever been.

It’s a gripping tale, brought to life all the more by the familiar scenes – Blue Ribbon Diner, King and Churton streets, and rides down roads we’ve all driven.

On page 36, Laura drives three miles south from her home on Highway-57 and connects with Highway-86.

“She turned south. Highway 86 became Churton as it passed through downtown. Beyond the brick buildings at the town’s center, beautifully maintained Georgians and Colonial Revivals gave way to low-slung ranches and finally to corrugated warehouses along I-85.”

Other times the local reader is left scratching their head – a bar called Hopsky’s? A u-shaped motel down King Street? A daily newspaper teeming with staff writers, competing to be on the front page?

And of course, the town is nothing like Hillsborough in these ways, and others. It is a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, much like the setting of most novels.

That doesn’t thwart the deepness with which Hetherton has filled his debut with familiar characters. You can’t help but like former sheriff Donald Rodgers, or crotchety-old newspaper editor Bass Harmon. There is something undeniably sweet, if naive, about Chambers’ love interest Frank Stuart, a deputy who drives many of the ladies in Hillsborough mad, and yet can only wonder what, exactly, Chambers is using him for.

The only therapist in town, Jasmine DeVane intrigues Chambers, who became a weekly patient upon arriving back in Hillsborough. DeVane offers Chambers perspective on what happened in Boston, and the trying relationship with her mother.

Chambers is the driving force of the book, a deeply flawed 29-year-old woman who will make you roll your eyes back into your head with her inability to leave good enough alone. And yet you can’t help but cheer for her and the determined urgency with which she fights for others. There is thick metaphor in the car she drives, a 1969 Dodge Dart in midnight blue, the horsepower barely contained under the hood.

The book will keep you entertained and guessing all the way through. Twists and turns, day trips to Pisgah National Forest and Virginia set the stage for an ending where it began, in the heart of Hillsborough.

This is one worth reading.