By John Milliken Thompson
Other Press; 368 pages; $15.95
By Gina Webb
A sensational trial. A tragic love triangle. An unsolved mystery. Deeply buried childhood secrets. Combine, dredge in period details and roll in post-Civil War imagery, and the result is John Milliken Thompson’s virtuoso first novel.
Meticulously researched and set in the former Confederate capital of Richmond, 30 years after the end of the war, “The Reservoir” offers the kind of engrossing time-travel that hooks us from the first page. Thompson, a North Carolina native, found inspiration for his story in a true case he unearthed while doing historical research.
On a chilly morning in March 1885, the body of a young woman was found floating in the Marshall Reservoir on the east side of the city. Because she was eight months pregnant, Lillian Madison’s death was at first assumed to be a suicide. But evidence of a struggle convinced police of foul play, and within days an up-and-coming lawyer — and the victim’s cousin — Tommie Cluverius, was arrested for her murder.
Thompson blows the dust off this long-forgotten criminal case — Richmond’s “murder of the century” — and transforms it into a believable, haunting account of two brothers, the woman they both loved, the events that led to her death and the sensational trial that determined Tommie’s fate.
In Thompson’s layered tale, cousin Lillie’s first suitor is Tommie’s older brother Willie, whose devotion and stability eventually bores her. She turns to Tommie, more ambitious than his brother, who obligingly seduces her, but is maddeningly evasive whenever the subject of marriage arises. Eventually he makes it clear that when it comes to his bright future, he will want a more respectable fiance.
When the police arrest him for Lillie’s murder, the evidence is slight, and Tommie expects to get off. There’s just one problem: As the book opens, we see Tommie slipping away from the reservoir the night before his cousin’s body is discovered, hiding Lillie’s underclothes in a bag he then dumps in the river, and wondering what he’ll tell anyone who notices the deep scratches on his hand.
He all too quickly establishes an alibi and skips town, leaving the police to investigate his cousin’s death and track her whereabouts to a local hotel where she and Tommie were last seen together. It’s during Tommie’s flight to his hometown that the relationships between the two brothers and their troubled cousin begin to surface in the form of flashbacks.
As the search for witnesses and evidence progresses, most of what emerges seems flimsy, doubtful, even corrupt. Witnesses saw the two at a hotel, but can’t reliably identify the suspect; a watch key turns up at the crime scene, but proof that it was Tommie’s disappears; letters between the suspect and victim mysteriously vanish. Some witnesses are threatened; others threaten to tell all unless money changes hands.
Meanwhile, the police and high-profile prosecutors, war veterans “with Confederate honors trailing their names like sacred robes, ” build an increasingly solid case against Tommie — a convenient scapegoat for a city in the eye of a publicity hurricane, still keen to emerge from the shadow of the war with no further stains on its reputation.
Reminders of war are ever-present — “One-legged veterans [swing] down the street on crutches, ” a woman wears a locket “said to contain a shard of her husband’s shattered thigh bone” — and the losses the South sustained have left everyone with a sense of how fleeting life can be.
Tommie has premonitions that his may be cut short. He gives Lillie a memento mori, “a curious little skull” that spooks her. A gospel song about life after death — “Oh Dem Golden Slippers” — pops up again and again with the eerie foreboding of a Hitchcock motif.
Thompson’s mid-1880s South hits all the right notes, from inns and offices filled with cigar smoke to the fans that combat the heat of a summer day in a packed courtroom. Tommie buys Lillie “lipstick in a paper tube” and an issue of “Ogilvie’s Popular Readings.” The quaint language scattered throughout the book evokes the era without ever sounding contrived.
As thoroughly as he breathes life into every aspect of the setting, Thompson inhabits his characters, from the least — the jug-eared civil servant who first discovers Lillie’s body and develops a creepy crush on her — to the most developed: the ambivalent and mystifying Tommie Cluverius.
Tommie maintains his innocence while alluding to the real story that he should have told, would have told, might still tell. His passion for Lillie, contrasted with the behavior we see in the flashbacks, is as confounding as the alibis and excuses he keeps making to Willie, the police, and his lawyers.
Even when Willie uncovers another side to Tommie in his efforts to clear his name, we never quite know whodunit in “The Reservoir.” Thompson offers a fascinating, Rashomonlike array of clues and possibilities, each one subtly contradicting the other.
Instead, Tommie’s inability to face the truth, the traumatic past he shares with his brother and Lillie, and the intricate emotional webbing that has tied all three of them together since childhood are the essential mysteries in this intoxicating tale of loyalty, betrayal and the enduring vagaries of the human heart.