Tim Johnston’s new novel, “The Current,” is an exceptional tale of suspicion and secrets _ and a strong follow-up to his excellent 2015 book, “Descent.” The Iowa City native and resident is skilled at building suspense while also offering readers well-wrought, evocative prose. To call his novels literary thrillers or mysteries feels like damning them with faint — or at least wishy-washy—praise. Labels aside, they are deeply engaging and affecting books written with great but unobtrusive attention to both story and craft.
“The Current” centers on a 10-year-old mystery and a fresh tragedy. College student Audrey Sutter narrowly survives after escaping a car that has plunged into an icy river in an incident that kills her best friend. The event stirs up memories of another young woman found in the same river a decade before under suspicious circumstances. The threads of connection between the tragedies are complex, but Johnston has a sure hand as he conceals and reveals details at key moments.
The story unfolds from a variety of vantage points, and Johnston is particularly adept at taking us inside the heads of the characters as they reflect on past events. With a deft switching of a pronoun from “he” or “she” to “you,” he amplifies the immediacy and depth of his characters’ thoughts:
“He stared at the cloth where it lay on his own palm, of such thin stuff it stirred with his breath. Exactly the thing they’d been looking for when they came to the house. The thing that no one else knew was missing but them — and you, and no way for you to have it unless you’d taken it yourself. A memento. A keepsake to press in a book and find again one day, or to be found by someone else and wondered about. Sheer stupid luck that you’d seen it at all that night. Seen it before they did.”
As “The Current” flows toward its conclusion, Johnston is content to allow his characters to solve some of the book’s many mysteries but not all of them. In traditional genre fiction, this move might be intended to signal the forthcoming release of a sequel. But it doesn’t appear that is what Johnston is up to. Rather, these unresolved mysteries remind us that truth is often elusive no matter how steadfastly we pursue it or how much we wish it were otherwise. Sometimes an old question might be answered, but new questions are undoubtedly just downstream.
• What: Tim Johnston will read from “The Current”
• When: 7 p.m. Jan. 22
• Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
• Cost: Free