Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Review: The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson

The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson

ISBN: 978-159051444-3
Pages: 368
Release Date: June 21, 2011
Publisher: Other Press
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Historical Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5

Book Summary: 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.

Based on a true story, The Reservoir centers on a guilty and passionate love triangle composed of two very different brothers and one young, naive girl hiding an unspeakable secret. A novel of lust, betrayal, justice, and revenge, The Reservoir ultimately probes the question of whether we can really know the hearts and minds of others, even of those closest to

My Thoughts: I have always been fascinated by court rooms, criminal cases and trials in particular. In some respects, jury trials aren't that different from writing a story. A trial offers the prosecutor and the defense attorney the opportunity to weave a story for the jury, to put the facts presented in the best light possible for their side and then relay their story to the jury in order to influence them to deliver the verdict the prosecutor or defense attorney fervently hopes to hear. I decided to go to law school, for better or worse, when I was young but it wasn't until law school, when I took a Trial Advocacy class that I understood how trials really worked and what fun, albeit nerve-wracking at first, it was to go in front of a jury. Those career aspirations may have ended early for me, but I'm still and always will be an avid fan of books of criminal cases particularly when they are brought before a jury and a trial ensues. When I read the premise of The Reservoir on Devourer of Books blog I was thrilled that it was the next Book Club pick and eagerly signed up to receive a copy.

The Reservoir is based on a real criminal case John Milliken Thompson read about while doing some research. Fortunately for us it caught his attention and, while writing and researching further, he realized the case would make a riveting fictional story. Hence, The Reservoir, an absorbing story about two brothers, the woman they both loved and the investigation into her disturbing death. Themes of lust, betrayal, jealousy and deceit are explored as the relationships between the brothers and between each brother and the deceased young woman are examined. The story is set in and around Richmond, VA and a map of the area is included but I found it unnecessary to refer to it because Mr. Thompson describes the landscape, the towns and the city of Richmond beautifully including gothic elements in scenes involving the reservoir. Although this isn't really a mystery, at times it has that same delicious creepy atmosphere.

The book opens with the discovery on March 14, 1885 of the dead, pregnant, young woman, Lillie, but within a few pages the narrative moves to the actual night of her death, moments after it happens. The story is relayed by a third-person narrator and is so effectively detailed I had chills and felt like I was standing in the shadows watching Tommie. Yes, we meet Tommie in the first few pages because he's in the area of the reservoir in compromising circumstances. It quickly becomes apparent Tommie's an intriguing, puzzling and beguiling character. Whether or not he's likable is questionable. The same goes for whether or not he can be trusted. Sometimes I was convinced he was absolutely trustworthy but then he would do something despicable and underhanded. He's slick, quite a charmer and can sweet-talk anyone. Of course he's an attorney and for part of the narrative he's in law school where he learns a lot more than the law. It was clear to me that Tommie displayed a facade of the smart, well-mannered, proper young man to the world but he has a much darker side that very few people are aware of. Mr. Thompson created a fascinating character in Tommie. The more I read about him the more I wanted to know until I started to recognize in him a few of the guys I knew in law school but didn't really care for.

Thompson's writing flows smoothly and the pages almost turn by themselves in this captivating story, especially when the trial begins. I read a few reviews that found the beginning of the book slow. That wasn't my experience. Before the investigation gets underway and the trial begins, we get to know Tommie, his brother Willie, their cousin, Lillie and some of the other characters like Tommie's fiance, Nola Bray. The chapters jump around from the various characters and their lives and relationships to the investigation of the dead young woman. I liked the way Thompson did this because I thought it made Lillie's death feel very real and quite shocking. One minute we're reading about her life, her conversations, her behavior and the next she's lying on a cement slab while people pass by viewing her body. The chapters about Tommie, Willie and Lillie and others also felt like preparation for the trial: we're learning about the various people in the deceased's life as well as who she spent time with and how she spent her days. One thing that becomes abundantly clear as the novel progresses is how little we really know and understand some of the people in our life, those we're closest to. Willie really struggles with this more and more, reluctantly realizing he doesn't really know Tommie and, what's more, he's not sure he can trust him.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Reservoir although, ultimately, it's a sad and poignant tale. I'm not going to give away the ending but, for what it's worth, I completely agreed with the trial's outcome. I think that Tommie's a very troubled soul and deceived many people including himself. Mr. Thompson has written a compelling and thoroughly satisfying story of a criminal case. Anyone who enjoys detective fiction and criminal investigations doesn't want to pass up The Reservoir.

Don't miss John Milliken Thompson's website about the book which includes the real story behind the book!


  1. I wonder if so many lawyers become authors because jury trials aren't that different from writing a novel - I find it fascinating that you said that. I enjoy books that are based on true stories.

  2. This sounds wonderful. I didn't realize it was based on a true story. Excellent review Amy.

  3. This has been getting a lot of attention lately! I didn't realize it was based on a true story either. Adding to my wish list again...

  4. I'm intrigued by the fact that this is a true story. It sounds really good, and your personal connection to the trial aspect of the story must have made reading it a real treat. As always, a great review!

  5. I also have been thinking of reading this one, but have been a little swayed by some of the tepid reviews. I like the fact that it's based on a true story and that it's an engaging read. Thanks for sharing your detailed and thoughtful analysis on it with us. I think you had some great observations about the book.

  6. I have this on my Nook to read. I purchased it because it is based on a true story and takes place in Richmond. It will be next on my list to read.

  7. Terrific review of this book! I agree, it was compelling (and like you, I enjoy books about crime, the psychology of crime, etc... so it was a no brainer for me to dive into this book!)

  8. This is definitely one that I will be adding to my list!