T.D. Johnston’s debut novel much more than a genre thriller

By Dan Conover

My favorite T.D. Johnston short story summoned a familiar Southern Gothic darkness into a contemporary moment of conflict and transformed it into a waking nightmare. Reciprocity is an entirely different animal – it fits snugly into the crime/political thriller genre – but it too showcases Johnston’s ability to transmute the comfortably familiar into something deeply sinister.

This debut novel starts with the sort of premise that a good thriller demands: What if a small group of smart, capable civilians decided to decapitate the modern American Mafia by killing the heads of crime families in major cities? The first third of Reciprocity shows that team in action, marks its quick rise to mass media celebrity as “The Godfather Assassins,” and introduces the FBI team assigned to track them down. It’s all fast-paced, well-written tradecraft, like plenty of other popular thrillers.

T.D. Johnston

It’s only in the book’s second third that Reciprocity takes its ominous turn into Johnston country. The details of that turn all count as spoilers, so I’ll avoid them and say this: Reciprocity is a novel with a moral center, but no illusions about “morality” or the lack of it. The more Dons the vigilantes kill, the more organized and influential their enemies become. Their resolve to destroy The Godfather Assassins eventually summons a “hunter” named Fingo from the Old Country, and this classic villain embodies an uncomfortable truth about violence: To kill is one thing, but the true power of organized crime is its ability to terrify the living.

A lesser book would strike a pose: For evil, against evil, or perhaps the fashionable literary ambivalence that renders such questions indecipherably vague. To its great credit, Reciprocity takes the reader into the dark places where the truly hard choices are made. Whatever ambivalence it presents is neither a pose nor a retreat, but an insight – because even when you’re entirely off the map, you still have to choose a direction.

Reciprocity works as a genre thriller. But it’s much more.

Upcoming Book Events for T.D. Johnston

Former Beaufort resident T.D. “Tim” Johnston – winner of the 2017 International Book Award for Best Short Fiction – will be in town the second weekend in May promoting his debut novel.

Friday, May 13, he’ll sign books at the Beaufort Bookstore (2127 Boundary Street) from 6 to 8 p.m., at a wine and cheese reception.

Saturday, May 14, he’ll discuss his book – and sign copies – at the Pat Conroy Literary Center (601 Bladen Street) from 2 to 4 pm. (Seating is limited; please call to reserve your spot at 843-379-7025).

Both events are free and open to the public, and books will be available for purchase.

Dan Conover is a former city editor at The Charleston Post and Courierand the author of six novels, including the newly released Ta Nupa and three other titles written under the pen name D.C. McElroy.

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