A book based on a true story: The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson
I always love a good murder mystery…and it’s even better when it’s based on a true story. The plot intrigued me (and I’m not going to lie, I loved the cover art!) enough to add Thompson’s first fiction novel to my list this year. Thompson is first and foremost an Historian, and you could clearly see the attention he paid to keeping the bones of the case historically accurate while fleshing out the more personal side of the story with a subtle touch. I felt it very believable and had to remind myself at times that some of the relationships and internal monologue of certain characters were fictional creations by the author and could not be taken as “Truth.” To me this indicates that Thompson was successful at blending the historical facts of the case with a creative flair to make the story more entertaining and emotionally interesting for the reader.
The only gripe I had, if I can even call it a gripe, is that Thompson writes in the present tense. This threw me off a bit. As a literary scholar, we always write in present tense in our academic writing (as if the literature is always happening since it doesn’t occur in a “real” timeline) but the literature itself varies even throughout the same piece in the tenses used. In this case, it read almost like a choose-your-own-adventure style: “John walks to the door and looks down. He sees his own two feet” rather than “John walked to the door and looked down. He saw his own two feet etc. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it was just different and stood out to me as a reader (and was just a tad distracting at first). I wondered if Historians also write in present tense in scholarly writing?
The novel takes place in Post-Civil War South, and although race is an issue that does crop up in the novel it serves as an undercurrent that only comes into play when several of the witnesses brought to testify at the trial are Black, and in the recounting of their testimonies the reader is privy to some racist undertones expected to be present in the South during this era. The focus of women and the treatment of women in this society seems to pull the focus, particularly in the relationships between Lilly and her father and Lilly’s mother and father’s relationship. Additionally, there is a lot of time spent in the way the prime suspect uses different women as a means to an end, toying with their futures (to tragic end for one of them) as he takes his time to decide which women would further his future the best with zero concern about their own fates. Again, this is indicative of the way women were treated during this time period.
Religion and the ideas of good and evil also come into play as the prime suspect grapples with his own morality. As a good Southern Christian, he grew up in the Church and often has thoughts that harken back to the Church’s teachings. As the novel progresses, he grapples more and more with the idea of good and evil and can’t decide if he truly deserves to be punished or not, and if so, whose responsibility it is to do the punishing. Particularly toward the end, he seeks Religious counsel and reflects often on the idea of God, Hell, and the nature of evil.
I rated this book a 3 overall. It had an interesting storyline, made even more interesting since its basis is grounded on a real court case, and the author did a fairly decent job of making the characters personable and interesting. I did not give this a higher rating because even at his best points, I still felt a sense of detachment from the characters; even though we have access to some of their internal thoughts, I still felt that we were always looking at them through a somewhat cold, distant, historical lens. Thompson has some work to do as a writer before he masters character development to the degree that truly pulls you in as a reader and refuses to let go until the last page.
***Note, spoilers below.***
The story begins when the body of a young pregnant woman is found floating in the Reservoir. Initially, the authorities believe it to be a suicide–a young woman, unmarried and pregnant in 1885 was quite a scandal and a “ruined woman” would be tempted to take such action. Initially she is unidentified, and as the autopsy is underway, murmurings of murder being to appear in the newspapers.
As this mysterious girl’s story unfolds, we jump back and forth between this storyline and that of Tommie Cluverius, a young ambitious law student. Tommie’s memories and thoughts immediately flag him as either the murderer of the unidentified girl or at least an accessory to the crime. He has a suspicious injury on his hand and keeps flitting back to memories of the previous night at the Reservoir. He also feels jumpy and overly interested in the details of the case as they unfold.
It’s not long before the girl is identified as Lillie, Tommie’s cousin, and the possibility of murder becomes very real. Once the girl is identified and her family comes to claim her body, it very quickly comes out that Tommie is her cousin and was at one time a possible romantic interest. He immediately becomes a person of interest to the police and they find strong evidence suggesting that Tommie was involved in the mysterious circumstances that took place at the Reservoir.
As the story progresses, the reader is given access to memories of Tommie’s interactions with the dead woman that lead us to suspect he absolutely was involved despite his denial to everyone around him. We learn that Tommie indeed had a love affair with Lillie and the baby she was carrying was in fact his own child. We also learn that Tommie refuses to commit to Lillie, thinking he can “do better for himself” so he makes a half hearted attempt to help Lillie “take care of” the baby but never actually does.
His mistreatment of Lillie builds until she finally feels that she has no alternative but to commit suicide. She drags him to the Reservoir and threatens to jump in and drown herself, but as usual Tommie doesn’t take her seriously. As she’s about to jump in, Tommie talks her out of it and says she turns around to face him, loses her footing and falls in. She smashes her head on a rock and is dead before she even has a chance to drown. Tommie panics at this point and runs away thinking if he goes for help he will be accused of murder, and there’s nothing he can do to help her anyway.
Tommie never confesses to the crime, but after a long and exhaustive trial finds him guilty based on circumstantial evidence, he is sentenced to death. As he awaits his execution, he admits the “true” story to his brother and says he is the only one who will ever know the whole story. However, Tommie later tells his brother that he made up the entire story and he really murdered Lillie after much thought because he didn’t want to be obligated to care for her and the baby. When his brother begs him to tell him it isn’t so, Tommie basically says you never know what a person is capable of. You never can believe what someone tells you.
So as readers, we are left on a cliffhanger. Was it a tragic accident? Did Tommie commit murder in cold blood? Was he even really involved? The evidence is very convincing either way–his defense makes an excellent case against most of the pivotal points and in the real case we did not have Tommie’s “confession” or memories to rely on, so we are left with the question: what really happened to Lille?