The most common thriller plot may be that of the girl or young woman who vanishes and is feared to be either a captive or dead. That fear set in motion Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River,” Laura Lippman’s “What the Dead Know” and countless other works. There’s a reason this plot is so often used: It works. If you’re a parent or grandparent, or simply a caring individual, there’s nothing more painful to contemplate than the horrors that might be visited upon a lost girl. I’ve read many variations on this theme, some quite good, but never one as powerful as Tim Johnston’s Descent.

The publisher calls “Descent” a “literary thriller.” It’s a thriller because it concerns a girl of 18 who is abducted during a family vacation in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. It’s literary because Johnston’s prose is lyrical, even poetic, to a degree rarely found in fiction, literary or otherwise.

Johnston has made clear in interviews that he set out to apply his skills to a plot “ripped from the headlines.” He added, “I wanted it to be the kind of story I loved to read before I knew the world made a distinction between a great story and great writing. I wanted it to be both.”

On vacation, Caitlin Courtland, who is about the enter college, sets out with her brother, Sean, 15, for a run in the mountains. She’s the star of her high-school track team, someone who loves the freedom of running, but on an isolated road this morning, a car strikes her brother, who is badly injured. The driver offers to take Caitlin for help but instead abducts her. As we read on, we slowly learn her fate and how her loss devastates her family.

Her parents’ marriage, already troubled, implodes. At first, they all remain in Colorado to search for Caitlin, but in time the mother returns home to Wisconsin while the father and son stay on. The father drinks too much and enters into a new relationship, but never gives up the search. “Without evidence, without definitive proof, a father would never give up believing,” he explains. The son, who turns 18 in the three years of the novel, is brave and trouble-prone but equally determined.

“Descent” by Tim Johnston. (Courtesy of Algonquin Books)

The family’s collapse and Caitlin’s suffering are unspeakably sad. There were times when I had to put the book down. People shouldn’t have to suffer as these people do — and of course, this fictional family represents countless real-life families. The difference is that the novelist makes things so much more immediate, more agonizing, than real-world accounts that we glance at and move on.

The story unfolds brilliantly, always surprisingly, but the glory of “Descent” lies not in its plot but in the quality of the writing. The magic of his prose equals the horror of Johnston’s story; each somehow enhances the other.

A few examples:

●The girl, chained, watching a beam of light: “Currently the beam is midfloor. She could reach out and place her hand in it and feel it pool in her palm, a warm autumnal yellow, a weightless continuum of the outside world, free to come and go.”

●The kidnapper: “ People don’t want to give dumb luck any credit for the turns in their lives, good or bad. People want to believe in some plan, or design, when all around them is the evidence that the whole world is nothing but dumb luck. Going back to the first cells in the ocean. Going back to the stars.”

●The mother: “It was like falling into blackness. The end of everything. A daughter was your life; it was as simple as that. Her body was the only body, her heart the only heart. The most absolute, the most terrible love.”

●The father: “I never believed in God like I never believed in the truly bad man. In his power to touch me. Now I ask of this God, that if he will not give me my daughter back, at least give me my bad man. At least give me that. I spend my nights dreaming of nothing else. Of getting this man in my hands. I wake up with the taste of his blood in my mouth.”

I hope the “literary thriller” label doesn’t scare away lovers of serious fiction who are suspicious of thrillers, or thriller fans who think literary means dull. “Literary” is not really relevant. The question is whether you value gorgeous prose and can accept a story as painful as it is beautiful. If you do and you can, read this astonishing novel. It’s the best of both worlds.

Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.


By Tim Johnston

Algonquin. 375 pp. $25.95