Pick up Tim Johnston’s suspenseful novel “The Current” and you risk finding yourself glued to your chair, eyes to the pages, no thought of attending to daily obligations.
The Upper Midwest with its frigid weather and miles of isolated snow-covered fields sets up this chilling story, beginning with two college students, Audrey and Caroline, driving on icy roads to Audrey’s hometown in Minnesota. When their car slides off the road, landing precariously in a bank above the frozen Lower Black Rock River, a mysterious vehicle hits them from behind. The impact sends the car down the slope, plunging it through the ice. Audrey survives; Caroline is lost to the underlying current. Evidence suggests foul play.
The accident reverberates through Audrey’s hometown, bringing back painful memories of another girl, Holly Burke, whose body was found floating in the same river 10 years earlier. Murder was suspected, but the case has never been solved.
Johnston masterfully intertwines these parallel events with the already complicated lives of three families devastated by tragedy.
Audrey’s father, Tom Sutter, a terminally ill retired sheriff, is haunted by the case he couldn’t close years ago and by the release of a suspect for lack of evidence. Now, his daughter’s near-death experience drives him to find the one who forced her and her friend off the road. This time he’ll deliver justice.
Holly’s father, Gordon Burke, a divorced, taciturn owner of a plumbing shop, can’t forgive himself for not keeping his girl safe. His former congenial nature is consumed by anger toward the sheriff who released the young man he’s convinced killed her.
Rachel Young, the widow whose son Danny left town soon after being questioned about Holly’s death, lives a lonely life in an old farmhouse. Rachel’s friendship with Gordon ended when Danny became a suspect. Many nights she sits in the kitchen, writing to her son while his brother Marky, who needs special looking after, sleeps upstairs. Danny had protected him. Now he’s gone.
Audrey’s accident and her physical and emotional vulnerabilities awaken a tenderness in Gordon, who helps her in small ways he couldn’t help his daughter. After her father dies, Audrey, sensing that some injustice had been done, takes on the investigation of Holly’s death at great peril.
Johnston’s elegant, cinematic style takes us into the characters’ lives and history, problems and concerns. The book examines that horrifying moment when everything changes, the before and after when love, friendship, hopes and trust turn into dread, guilt, blame and grief. We care and fear for them as the stakes grow higher, more lethal. A killer is still on the loose.
A determined, courageous young woman who refuses to be a victim looks for answers despite the dangers and offers a path forward to forgiveness and healing.
Elfrieda Abbe is a book critic in Wisconsin.
By: Tim Johnston.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 408 pages, $27.95.
Event: 7 p.m. Jan. 23, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.