by John Milliken Thompson
Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
The world that Mr. Thompson creates in this astonishing novel has many centers of interest. It is a story of passion, of family feeling, and of spiritual testing. It is a crime story with meticulous development of trial procedure, public opinion, evidentiary certainties and uncertainties. It is a psychological thriller that plumbs the nature of guilt as a dynamic, festering force. It is a historical drama of the American South a generation after the Civil War.
Set in Richmond in 1885, The Reservoir embroiders upon what is known of an actual case, “Commonwealth v. Cluverius,” that attracted the attention of history-lover Thompson. The author sets us up as follows: Soon after the corpse of a pregnant young woman, Lillie Madison, is found floating in the Marshall Reservoir, clues lead to the arrest of her cousin, Tommie Cluverius. Tommie is a young man just starting out in the practice of law. He seems to have the equipment for success: intelligence, industry, good looks, and a willingness to please. From the outside, villainy doesn’t seem to be in him. But facts are facts – or are they?
Are there dimensions to Tommie that have been kept hidden?
Complications: Lillie had caught the eye of Willie, Tommie’s workaday, rock solid older brother, before Tommie had become interested in her. Tommie simultaneously carried on a flirtation-courtship with another young woman, Nola, whom he felt was a better match for his career and social aspirations. There is a strong suspicion that Lillie has been sexually abused by her father. It’s not clear which of several men got Lillie pregnant. Moreover, there would seem to be several people who would want her out of the way for one reason or another: jealousy, cruelty, and freedom from Lillie’s claims or revelations among them.
Further complication comes from Tommie’s odd behavior as he awaits his trial and then participates in his defense. On the one hand, he seems to have exculpatory evidence or information that for some reason he won’t reveal. On the other, his alibis don’t hold up. He oscillates between being frantic to save himself and being stoically resigned to the fact that he cannot. Thompson brilliantly portrays Tommie’s troubled soul, while leaving the source of Tommie’s guilty feelings an open question. Perhaps his guilt stems from some other horrible deed and not the murder of Lillie Madison.
Thompson’s delineations of every character, whether major or minor, are fascinating in complexity, clarity, or both. Whether it be young Reverend Hatcher, who tries to bring Tommie spiritual comfort; the reservoir and law enforcement officials; the lawyers who defend Tommie and those who prosecute him; his protective and supportive Aunt Jane (just about the only nurturing figure in the cast of characters); his loyal brother Willie, so desperate to believe in Tommie’s essential goodness even while knowing better; Lillie’s menacing father; or Lillie herself, the author sounds out each with perfect pitch.
While intriguing as a mystery and as a composite psychological study, The Reservoir is also spellbinding in its representation of late nineteenth century Richmond and its environs. Thompson has integrated a ton of research into elaborating a dynamic setting that never seems overburdened with mere facts. He weaves together what people wear, how they speak, what prayers they recite, how they make their livings, and what forms of transportation they use, building an entire cultural-technological reality.
Permeating the actions, the personalities, and the Richmond ethos is an atmosphere of religiosity and spiritual yearning. Concern for the human soul is an unexpectedly powerful ingredient in this marvelous tale. 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.
The Reservoir recently made the Southern Indie Best Seller list in June and the overall Indie Next list for July.