Thompson (America's Historic Trails) fleshes out the bones of an actual 1885 murder case in his solidly entertaining first novel. When the body of a pregnant young white woman is found floating in a Richmond, Va., reservoir one cold March morning, she appears to have taken her own life. After she's identified as Lillian Madison, Police Justice Daniel Cincinnatus Richardson arrests Tommie Cluverius, Lillian's cousin, for murder. In flashbacks, Thompson reveals the links between Lillian and Tommie, an ambitious, mercurial fledgling lawyer, and Tommie's older brother, Willie, an earnest, steadfast farmer. Lillian is attracted to both, but falls for Tommie, who has his eye set on a more advantageous marriage. A tense trial ensues in which Willie is forced to measure his devotion to his brother against the various versions of events related by Tommie. The strong period setting lifts a somewhat prosaic tragedy. Author tour. (June)
From the Publisher
“Pitch-perfect to the post-Civil War era…This is an impressive first novel…an artful vehicle for grappling with temptations and the ambiguities of guilt….The Reservoir gets stronger and richer as it rolls toward its startling climax.” —Jim Lynch, Washington Post
“In this compelling novel, this superb writer instructs and enchants.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“The Reservoir is a complex first novel that is a simmering blend of Southern tragedy, a love triangle, coming-of-age story, and crime saga.” —Historical Novels Review
“John Milliken Thompson’s debut novel sings out with highly original notes and harmonies. It is structurally and stylistically impressive, morally engaging, and for all that masterfully entertaining. It makes an indelible imprint.” —Southern Literary Review
“An engaging mystery novel rendered as Southern literature.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Solidly entertaining.” —Publishers Weekly
“Historian and debut novelist Thompson mined a treasure trove of documents and background detail for this novel, based on an actual murder and trial set in 1880s Richmond, VA…Thompson masterfully illustrates how a seemingly clear-cut case can be filled with ambiguities.” —Library Journal
“Fans of courtroom drama, historical mysteries, and Southern gothic are sure to enjoy the tale which, even once the book is finished, will keep readers wondering about what happened at the reservoir.” —ForeWord Reviews
“Gorgeously suffused with the feel of 1880s Virginia, The Reservoir is not a whodunit but, even better, a did-he-do-it... John Milliken Thompson’s debut is an all-too-human and unforgettable puzzle, rendered in haunting shades of gray.” —Holly LeCraw, author of The Swimming Pool
“It is the way people think and feel that creates the plot for this book … the characters are absolutely right from start to finish.” —Joanne Greenberg, author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
“Impressive… Even though the story takes place in Richmond, Virginia about twenty years after the Civil War ended, there was a sense of urgency on my part to get to the book’s conclusion. In other words, whenever I had to put the book down due to eyes that simply could no longer remain open, I looked forward to the moment that I could get back to this intriguing tale.”— Carol Hoenig, The Huffington Post
Historian and debut novelist Thompson mined a treasure trove of documents and background detail for this novel, based on an actual murder and trial set in 1880s Richmond, VA. The book begins like any procedural drama—a body found in the city reservoir, a grisly autopsy, the assembling of evidence—but Thompson creates a backstory for the individuals involved. Lillie Madison, an attractive flirt, toys with the affections of her cousins, brothers Willie and Tommie. Willie is a stoic farmer who defers to his younger brother, but Tommie, an ambitious lawyer, doesn't want to endanger his fledgling career when Lillie becomes pregnant. Did Tommie actually kill Lillie at the reservoir, or did Lillie commit suicide? Thompson masterfully illustrates how a seemingly clear-cut case can be filled with ambiguities. Newspaper coverage sensationalizes Tommie's trial and influences the outcome, while Tommie's lawyers and judges, honored veterans of the Confederacy, already seem like antiquated figures. Thompson puts us in the middle of Reconstruction-era Richmond, a Southern city emerging into modern times. VERDICT While not as ponderous as Caleb Carr's The Alienist, for example, this novel will appeal to readers of historically accurate fiction.—Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA
A novel based on a true story that incorporates a bit of history and a touch of the Southern Gothic tradition.
In 1885 Virginia, Tommie and Willie Cluverius have grown to manhood together in the house of their Aunt Jane only to choose far different paths in life. Willie loves the rich land and the peaceful pace of farm life. Tommie seeks the vibrancy of Richmond, a day's ride away. The two were shaped by a family tragedy, the death of a younger brother, Charles, drowned as a boy. Their mother then descended into despondency and drink, and the father became lost and inept, leaving no place for the boys except with their widowed, childless aunt. But Aunt Jane soon gave refuge to Fannie Lillian Madison, a distant cousin to the young men, a girl fleeing a troubled home life. Stolid, hardworking Willie develops a quiet, protective love for Lillie. Out of lust or simple entitlement or sibling rivalry, Tommie toys with Lillie's affections even as he progresses through college, through law school and into a partnership in a law practice. The situation is made worse by Lillie's unremitting passion for Tommie and Tommie's ambition to marry Nola, the only daughter of a prosperous landowner. Lillie becomes pregnant, and, after a secret rendezvous with Tommie in Richmond, she is found dead in a city reservoir. The author writes compellingly about the bond between Willie and Tommie, and his portrayal of the social mores of the post-Civil War South is believable. Thompson also draws the land and people persuasively. Despite one or two minor anachronisms, the narrative flows seamlessly, even throughout Tommie's arrest and trial and the story's uncertain resolution. Characters are especially well-drawn: Willie's love of the land, Lillie's fearful need to be nurtured and protected, Tommie's self-centered drive toward recognition.
An engaging mystery novel rendered as Southern literature.
Read an Excerpt
On March 14, 1885, a body is floating in the old Marshall Reservoir, in a light snow, and then under a waxing moon.
In the morning the superintendent of the reservoir, Lysander Meade, discovers a furrowed place on the walkway that he does not remember seeing the night before. Someone has crawled through the fence again—early in the year for youngsters to be out cavorting at night. He glances down toward the water and sees what appears to be a dress. It’s floating along the edge of the water, where the embankment slopes down to a picket fence. He’s seen a lot of oddities in his years—rubber condoms and smutty books and the occasional sack of puppies—but never a dress. He tries to imagine the scene. Mighty cold last night for such carryings-on. Except now he sees it isn’t just a dress, but a whole person. A woman. And a dead one at that, or what appears to be. Never has he found a dead woman, nor man neither for that matter.
So down he goes for a better look. Who would not want to see a dead woman? Could she be something to look at? Could she be a fine looking lady, or might she be one of your more common sorts? Mr. Lucas comes up from the pump house where he has been repairing a stopcock, and helps Mr. Meade with his speculations. They stand there together, Lucas a head taller, loose-limbed and slack-jawed, with stick-out ears, while Meade, wearing thick eyeglasses, bends rigidly forward at the waist, his navy jacket stretching across his back, his neat mustaches crinkling as he sniffs the air. All they can make out at first is a gray wool dress with flounces at the bottom and hair hanging like dark weeds about her head. “The grappling hook’s the thing,” Mr. Meade says.
Mr. Lucas comes back presently, hook at the ready. But now Mr. Meade is not so sure. He nudges the body closer to the shore. Then he stops and yells. “Hello, ma’am? Hello, miss? Hello?”
“I expect you’ll have to yell louder than that,” Mr. Lucas suggests.