LIKE HIS 2015 DEBUT, Descent, Tim Johnston’s second novel, The Current, takes the familiar narrative triggers of the mystery novel — murder, disappearance, investigation, et cetera — and employs them somewhat outside the genre expectations of a typical mystery. Crimes occur but don’t dominate the story line, allowing Johnston’s characters to be the central focus of this slow-burning literary thriller exploring the repercussions of an unsolved murder on three families in a small Midwestern town after a similar crime stirs up the unanswered questions of the past.
Caroline Price and Audrey Sutter are sophomores at a college in Memphis when Audrey learns from her father, a retired sheriff, that his lung cancer has recurred and is now inoperable. Audrey is an only child — her mother died when she was only seven — and she wants to spend as much time with her father as possible before she loses what’s left of her family. Caroline, needing some distance from her philandering boyfriend, offers to drive Audrey all the way to her southern Minnesota hometown — a spontaneous girl-bonding road trip.
After 11 hours on the road, they have made it to the Iowa-Minnesota border, only an hour away from Audrey’s house, when a sudden sleet storm and the need for a bathroom break cause them to detour two miles off of the highway, half a mile up a steep incline to an isolated gas station, “a dubious, sickly lit shoebox of a building.”
Caroline stays in the SUV while Audrey goes to the restroom, and when she fails to return, Caroline goes looking for her, discovering Audrey just outside the restroom door, about to be sexually assaulted by two men. Caroline sprays them both with mace, and the girls run back to the vehicle, trailing clouds of mace and adrenaline, through the sleet and the dark, half-blinded by tears brought on by fumes and terror.
Caroline, a Georgia native unaccustomed to driving on icy roads, loses control of the vehicle halfway down the hill, and she fishtails wildly, coming to a stop in a snowdrift on the edge of the high bank of a frozen river. The giddy relief following their near-accident is short-lived as another vehicle, descending the hill, approaches and bumps them over the edge into the river below. Audrey survives with a broken arm, but Caroline is swept away under the ice, her body recovered weeks later. Although it is unclear whether this was a horrible accident or road rage payback by their assailants, Caroline’s death is reminiscent of the decade-old murder of another young woman.
The river that claimed Caroline’s life, Black Root River, is the same river that cuts through Audrey’s hometown, and it holds a tragic significance in the town’s memory: 10 years ago, Holly Burke, a girl Audrey’s age, was struck by a car, her body dumped into the river while she was still breathing, clinging to life. No one was ever convicted of the murder, and the only suspect was released because of lack of evidence — but small towns have long memories.
Two dead girls, a cold case revisited, murder, attempted murder, assault. This checklist seems to be laying the groundwork for a standard mystery novel, but Johnston’s narrative current (groan) flows in a different direction; while the investigation of the crimes is the centerpiece of the novel, he is equally concerned with the emotional damage these crimes have wrought on those left behind. Shifting between the past and the present, in alternating third- (and sometimes second-) person POVs, Johnston expertly weaves together the stories of those most affected by Holly Burke’s death: Holly’s father, Gordon; the family of Danny Young, the main suspect in Holly’s murder; and Audrey’s father, Tom Sutter, haunted by his failure to convict Danny.
The scene of the crime is a small town, and like all small towns, it is characterized by the interconnectedness of its citizens: their personal relationships, their long-held suspicions, and a roiling undercurrent of secrets and lies. Theirs is a community struggling to heal after its brush with tragedy tore relationships apart. Neighbors, friends, couples bound by their pasts, forced apart by circumstances and isolated by guilt: Danny’s mother Rachel’s guilt for what the town believes her son has done, Sheriff Sutter’s guilt for not closing the case, Gordon’s guilt for not being able to prevent Holly’s death.
You could curse God if there was anything left of him to curse. If he were not already dead and gone. In the end it’s you. Just you. You had one thing to do with your life and that was to protect her. To keep her safe.
And you did not. You did not.
Audrey is also suffering from guilt — a survivor’s guilt that has left her deeply ashamed for not fighting off her assailants, for being a victim in need of rescue, for inadvertently putting her friend in harm’s way. It doesn’t seem fair to her that Caroline did everything right — “Caroline fought, Daddy. She fought them so good. She fought them so beautifully” — and yet Audrey was the one who lived through the ordeal. She doesn’t remember much about that night, and she is unable to identify her attackers, which feels to her like she is failing Caroline all over again.
As Audrey recovers from her injuries and mourns the double loss of her dying father and her best friend, her mind shifts protectively into a more analytical track, fixating on Holly’s death instead of Caroline’s. Not only was Holly Burke’s case familiar to her as a local tragedy, and, closer to home, as one that had gnawed at her father for years, but Audrey was there when her father broke the news of Holly’s death to Gordon, and the pang of witnessing his grief is still with her a decade later. Feeling a connection to Holly because of her experience on the river, and needing a distraction from her own grief and helplessness, Audrey is compelled to investigate Holly’s murder, hoping to achieve closure for at least one victim.
As an amateur investigator, Audrey is capable, but not unrealistically so. She had always been her father’s “deputy,” and her instincts in pursuing leads and interviewing those involved are reasonable given her inexperience, but as she makes her way through the past’s unanswered questions Johnston fleshes out the narrative, revealing additional details about the case through other characters’ memories, and relates the impact Holly’s death had on those most affected.
Audrey’s father is one of those people. Frustrated by not being able to bring Holly’s killer to justice, and knowing he is still a free man, has been the biggest regret of his career. Although he is retired, after Audrey’s attack he is unwilling to leave the investigation to the authorities. Having borne witness to Holly’s father’s suffering and rage over not knowing why or by whom his daughter was killed, Tom fears that Audrey’s attack, and Caroline’s death, will become just another unsolved crime against a vulnerable young girl — another someone’s daughter — and he takes action. Galvanized by a father’s protective instincts toward his daughter, no longer bound by the protocols of his office, and knowing he is unlikely to live long enough to face the consequences of his actions, he employs unconventional methods to find her assailants.
For Gordon Burke, Holly’s death was a loss that caused him to cut himself off from the world, retreating into his guilt, becoming a gruff and bitter loner. Leaning into his loneliness as a punishment earned for his failures as a father and husband, he has spent the past 10 years angry. Angry at himself for letting his teenage daughter run wild, not knowing how to handle raising her after his divorce; at Danny, the man he believes responsible for her death, whom he had known since he was a boy and treated like family; and at the sheriff he believes let his daughter’s killer go free.
After the accusations, Danny Young left town, unable to face the stigma of living among people who all considered him guilty, knowing that the very act of leaving only confirmed their suspicions. Becoming something of a nomad, he tried to shake off the weight of the past, leaving behind his mother, his special-needs twin brother Marky, his girlfriend Katie, and his dog Wyatt, whose grief and bewilderment at the disappearance of his beloved master are profound and incredibly affecting.
Although Danny is still alive, his mother Rachel’s loss is comparable to Gordon’s. The two families had been close: their children had played together when they were younger, and, just before Holly’s murder, Rachel and Gordon had been in the early stages of a romantic relationship, which ended abruptly when her son was accused of his daughter’s murder. Although they had both lost children to death or departure, there was no possibility of maintaining a relationship, romantic or otherwise, and Rachel has been left to deal with the fallout on her own, going through the motions for years, hoping Danny will come back home, torn between a mother’s faith in the innocence of her son and her own uncomfortable suspicions and memories of that night.
Johnston delivers a richly atmospheric story whose depictions of the frozen winter landscape reinforce the novel’s theme of individuals unable to move on after loss — everything in the town is cold, buried under snow, or trapped under ice, while its inhabitants are paralyzed by grief, memories buried under trauma. But as Danny observes, the static quality of the frozen lake is only an illusion:
Before him the river lay flat and still from bank to bank and buried in white except where the wind had scoured away the snow and left black, glassy ponds of ice, like portals for looking into the water that flowed below. It was two bodies of water really, one holding in place for the long winter while the other flowed on beneath it. One staying, one going.
What appears to be frozen in time and unchanging on the surface is, in fact, concealing a rush of activity, needing only to be chipped away to discover. Although a current, like time or grief, is an impassive, implacable force carrying away what stands in its path, it is also a signifier of change, which need not always be destructive.
The Current is, in part, a mystery, but it’s also about everything that is left in a mystery’s wake — the fathers and daughters, mothers and sons facing the tormenting questions surrounding their dead or disappeared loved ones. It is an examination of the way tragedies divide but can also offer the opportunity to bring people together, ushering in the inevitable thaw that can reveal the path toward moving forward and healing.