THE RESERVOIR by John Milliken Thompson

Book Quote:

“What are you waiting for, Tommie? If there’s something that can save you, what could you possibly be waiting for?”

“I can’t say that either. The jury doesn’t want to hear things. Nobody wants to hear certain things, because nobody can believe certain things even if they hear them. There’s strange things that happen in the world sometimes. I’ve come to understand that, and they don’t fit in with the rest of our lives. These things, they’re like a burl in a tree, Willie – they don’t belong there. They get in somehow and the tree has to work around it. Or else die.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (JUN 21, 2011)

Tommie Cluverius is on trial for murder in the first degree. The charge is that he killed Lillie Madison and threw her into a reservoir where she drowned. The year is 1885 and Richmond, Virginia is the scene of the crime. Did Tommie kill Lillie or was it suicide? Did someone else kill Lillie and try to pin the crime on Tommie? The outcome of the trial will determine whether Tommie lives or goes to the gallows.

The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson is a moving and fascinating story of two brothers and the woman they both love. Tommie has always had ambition and things came easily for him. He was his parents’ favorite child while his brother, Willie, was more easy-going and wanted to live off the land. His goal was to farm the land or be a sawyer. Tommie set out to college and became a lawyer, joining up with the prestigious firm of his mentor.

Both boys were raised by their Aunt Jane. Their younger brother died when he was six years old in a drowning accident and their mother started drinking very heavily. At the same time, their father lost his farm in the depression following the Civil War. Aunt Jane was childless and had money and love to raise the two boys so they were sent to live with her. When Willie was sixteen, their cousin Lillie was also sent to live with Aunt Jane. She was having troubles at home and Aunt Jane took her in.

The novel weaves back and forth in time and we learn that Willie and Lillie were in love for many years. Tommie was engaged to Nola, a neighbor whose family had wealth and land. Though Tommie wasn’t in love with Nola, he saw this as a good match for himself, an opportunity to expand his wealth and achieve his social ambitions. He did not intend to fall in love with Lillie, but it happened. Though in love with Lillie, he planned on marrying Nola.

The reader gradually learns that Lillie has family secrets, especially about her father who has been physically abusive and sexually inappropriate with her. Aunt Jane sends Lillie to boarding school for a while and Tommie goes off to college at the same time. Tommie likes to visit the brothels very regularly. In today’s parlance, one might consider him a sex addict because he spends money he doesn’t have on prostitutes, is obsessed with going to the brothel and makes it a major part of his life.

The novel opens with the following sentence: “On March 14, 1885, a body is floating in the old Marshall Reservoir…”. The body turns out to be Lillie and she is eight months pregnant. The first thought is that it was a suicide but there are two sets of footprints. One set appears to belong to Lillie and the other set is a larger size, most likely a man’s. The coroner determines that Lillie was killed. A search for the killer begins and all the evidence leads to Tommie. He is picked up and charged with the murder.

The setting of the story and the trial is Richmond, Virginia and the surrounding area. The author gets the feel and ambiance of the environs and time to a tee. The reader can almost smell the streets, feel the political charge in the air and know what it’s like to live in Richmond in the late nineteenth century.

Willie and Tommie are very close and as the trial progresses, Willie does everything he can for Tommie. However, does he really believe in his brother’s innocence? The early part of the book alludes to Tommie’s guilt but as the book progresses it gets much more difficult to figure out how much of a roll Tommie played in Lillie’s death or if he killed her at all. The court scenes are exciting and the characters of the defense attorneys and prosecution are very well done. My only gripe with the book is that the author told me too much, not letting me figure out the subtle emotional backdrop to the story and the people. I wanted to let things play out in my mind and not always see them in black and white, on paper.

Mr. Thompson has written several works of non-fiction and has published short stories but this is his debut fiction novel. This is a novel based on an actual criminal case that the author researched. “The details of the case, then, were the fence posts on which I hung the story. The tragic love triangle at its heart was my invention, but it was suggested by the facts.” It is an admirable achievement and one can tell that he knows the south very well. He has lived there all his life and his familiarity with the people and sense of place comes through marvelously in the telling of this tale.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 17 readers
PUBLISHER: Other Press (June 21, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: John Milliken Thompson
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of another Virginia mystery involving brothers, but in current setting:

The Legal Limit by Martin Clark



June 21, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Debut Novel, Facing History, Mystery/Suspense, US South

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