“a revelation about the cost and sometimes benefit of being flawed humans who care about others and struggle to find a way forward.”
When a crime novel turns out to be a long, leisurely, yet tense and suspenseful route through the emotions and changes of sons and fathers, there are two obvious choices for a reader: Put the book down because it asks a bit more than you want to give, or slow your reading pace and open the hours ahead for pleasure and discovery.
Tim Johnston’s fifth novel keeps constantly rubbing the wound of family disappointment, while prying open a rural Wisconsin community where three young boys remain missing, a generation later. Sean Courtland discovers the town by accident—that steaming green fluid from his old Chevy truck says he’s not going further toward his father’s place across the state—and within hours he’s also tumbled into the residue of grief and anger that stains the community. Punching a foul-mouthed man in a bar puts him into the sights of Detective Corrine Viegas, who’s investigating a not-quite-missing man. Sean’s clearly not the one she’s keeping an eye out for, but he’s different enough, and unexplained enough, to hold her interest.
In the long run that may be a good thing. In the short run, though, Sean needs quick cash work so he can pay for repairs to his truck and eventually resume his journey. Lost in his own uncertainty, he’s vulnerable to the mood of the town: “Somewhere to the east an engine on the BNSF line blew its horn, a long and pitiful sound, like some solitary thing sounding out the night for one of its kind. Sean tugged his jacket collar high and set off in that direction.”
Only an outsider like Sean would accept work for old Marion Devereaux, peculiar enough that the town’s odd myths connect him with both space aliens and the missing children. For Sean, Devereaux is just a worn-out and odd codger who needs his washing machine moved upstairs, because he can’t handle his cellar steps any longer. Sean needs to build the man an upstairs laundry room and re-plumb the place. Paying forward someone’s help to him, he collects a stranded stranger from the side of the road, discovers he’s found a skilled plumber, and brings Dan Young into the Devereaux rebuild: a move that draws the detective’s attention, for both its unexpected kindness and a possible connection to the lost or missing Minnesota man she’s seeking.
All of that sounds like an ordinary setup for a rural crime novel, but Johnston inserts interludes of old man Devereaux and his late mother—as well as haunted snippets of the long-lost missing children. A net of menace and unregretted past crimes begins to drape the story, which in turn deepens, probing how sons may vanish physically or emotionally. For Detective Viegas, the complex investigation takes on aspects of “An old wives’ tale, surely. Or ghost story. As any such story must be.”
Johnston’s writing carries a hint of the classic Southern Gothic, parallel to the crime fiction of Randall Silvis. The sweet pain also recalls the Boston families that haunt Dennis Lehane’s novels, as well as the West Virginians in Julia Keller’s.
The reward for ambling at the slow, layered pace in Distant Sons is a revelation about the cost and sometimes benefit of being flawed humans who care about others and struggle to find a way forward. That’s easily twice as good as a simple crime novel, and well worth the time spent reading all the interludes and sorting out the clues.