Stout's Carolina Skeletons (1988) won an Edgar for Best First Novel. But his fourth (after Hell Gate, 1990, and Night of the Ice Storm, 1991) is better--far better: a beautifully modulated, genuinely moving tale of kidnapping and murder in upstate New York. Bessemer Gazette executive editor Will Schafer, a relatively minor figure in Night of the Ice Storm, takes center stage here when he's sent to cover the kidnapping in nearby Long Creek of five-year-old Jamie Brokaw, son of the richest man in the county, a cable-TV entrepreneur. The paper had sent old Fran Spicer, a recovering rummy, to cover the crime, but--in a touch that sets the story's melancholy mood--Fran was found badly hurt and apparently drunk in a car wreck outside Long Creek. In town, Will finds an old FBI pal heading up the case, which is good news since the local cops, with one notable exception, seem as hard and possibly as crooked as they come. Will helps the FBI agent interpret various ransom notes, but when Fran dies in the hospital, the newspaperman turns to a friendly nurse (for whom he falls hard, despite his wedding band) to help him sort out his growing suspicions (based on well-seeded clues) that Fran was murdered: Is it possible that her death and the kidnapping are related? Meanwhile, we share the terror of the kidnapped boy as he's buried alive in an old water heater, and his elation as he's rescued by the hermit of the title- -as well as his horror when the cops take the hermit for a kidnapper and shoot him dead. The FBI man and the cops now seem to consider the case closed--until, in a tense finale, Will, putting all the pieces together, finds himself running for his life in the woods, the real kidnapper shooting at him to kill. Remarkably satisfying, with wonderfully complex characters, a challenging puzzle, and plenty of surprises and suspense. Readers will savor this one.