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Book Cover Image: The Reservoir by John Milliken ThompsonTitle: The Reservoir

Author: John Milliken Thompson

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):

“On an early spring morning in Richmond, Virginia, in the year 1885, a young pregnant woman is found floating in the city reservoir. It appears that she has committed suicide, but there are curious clues at the scene that suggest foul play. The case attracts local attention, and an eccentric group of men collaborate to solve the crime. Detective Jack Wren lurks in the shadows, weaseling his way into the investigation and intimidating witnesses. Policeman Daniel Cincinnatus Richardson, on the brink of retirement, catches the case and relentlessly pursues it to its sorrowful conclusion. As the identity of the girl, Lillie, is revealed, her dark family history comes to light, and the investigation focuses on her tumultuous affair with Tommie Cluverius.

Tommie, an ambitious young lawyer, is the pride and joy of his family and the polar opposite of his brother Willie, a quiet, humble farmer. Though both men loved Lillie, it’s Tommie’s reckless affair that thrusts his family into the spotlight. With Lillie dead, Willie must decide how far to trust Tommie, and whether he ever understood him at all. Told through accumulating revelations, Tommie’s story finally ends in a riveting courtroom climax.”

Thoughts: The Reservoir is one of those fascinating true-life mysteries that is fleshed out through fiction. A woman named Lillian was truly found dead in a reservoir in Richmond, Virigina and Tommie Cluverius did stand trial for her murder. Yet, the truth is stranger than fiction, as Mr. Thompson shares with his readers through this intriguing look at 1885 Richmond and a city that was struggling to recover its dignity after the end of the Civil War.

The key to the success behind The Reservoir is the meticulous research that oozes from every page. The reader has no problems picturing the town through which Tommie and Lillian ultimately meet their fates or the various scenes of society life portrayed. The glorification of the dead Confederacy and romanticising of its heroes plays a role in each of the character’s backgrounds and in the characters that have the most impact upon them; while Mr. Thompson could have made a mockery of a society that is stuck in the glory days, he handles this tricky scenario with delicacy and feeling. In addition, the truth behind the murder remains as murky at the ending of the novel as at the beginning. While this could be construed as frustrating to some, it is a testament to the messiness of life and the difficulties behind discerning the truth from lies. Like real life, The Reservoir  has no clear-cut answers or definitive solutions to a problem. The authenticity of the times and of life in general helps to create a strong narrative.

Unfortunately, where The Reservoir struggles is with its characters. The narration flips back and forth between points of view as well as past and present. This keeps the reader from sympathizing too much with any one character, or even from forming a connection with one or the other. Instead, the reader stays impartial, and therefore unengaged, in Lillian’s emotional outbursts or Tommie’s conniving ways. Mr. Thompson does not attempt to hide the flaws in his characters, but this also detracts from the narration because the reader cannot discern the truth from the fiction, even when one character is telling his or her side of the story. Since the reader does not truly care about the characters, it is difficult to feel the tension behind the proceedings, thereby minimizing the suspense or even interest.

The pacing is another weak point with The Reservoir . The switching between narrators and time periods is uneven and somewhat jarring in spots. The story itself speeds up and slows down at an unsteady pace. The reader will be struggling to get through a section, will all but speed-read through another, only to get bogged down again into another slow and somewhat boring section. There is no rhyme or reason for this unevenness, as it occurs with all narrators, in the past as well as in the present. In a mystery, this is a fundamental flaw.

The Reservoir is not a novel for those who like their stories tied up with tidy endings. It is for those who appreciate the darker, more complicated mysteries, as well as those who can appreciate the depth of research required to take the skeleton of a story idea and flesh it out to create a fully-realized hypothesis of an event that occurred over 100 years ago.

Thank you to Other Press and Nicole from Linus’s Blanket for my reading copy!

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