The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson

In The Reservoir’s opening scenes of March 14, 1885, Lillian Madison, a young pregnant woman, is found drowned in the reservoir of Richmond, Virginia. The night before, her cousin Tommie Cluverius, an up-and-coming attorney, is shown leaving the scene, discarding clothing and other items along the way. He does his best to establish an alibi and cover story for mysterious scratches on his hand before returning home to neighboring King and Queen County. Though the death is first thought a suicide, it doesn’t take long before Richmond police journey to Tommie’s home to make an arrest once discovering the cousins were also lovers.

I experienced a failure to launch with this novel, which surprised me because usually a novel like this fits all of my criteria for an absorbing read. Among the things that initially appealed to me were the historical time period, Gothic elements, doomed love triangle and that it’s based on real events. My main point of contention is just how long it took for me to get into the story. It’s slow going in the beginning, and hindered by an incredibly long cast of characters from the people who discovered the body, the investigators, law enforcement in two towns, in addition to to Tommie, Willie, their parents and Aunt Jane and Lillian. The story flits back and forth between the developing relationships between Willie, Lillian, Tommie and Tommie’s fiancé, Nola Bray. The relationship angle is accompanied by an underlying theme of responsibility – for the drowning death of Tommie and Willie’s younger brother Charles. There was something about the writing that created distance from the characters. I was never able to bridge that gap enough to care enough about many of them.

About a hundred pages in, I did become more engaged in the story. The tension is in whether Tommie actually committed murder. There is ample feeling and characterization to suggest he was calculating enough about his career and marriage into wealth to have killed his poor relation. This pregnancy would have surely interfered with his prospects. While the story is a sad one, it’s also a familiar one and nothing in it particularly surprised me. Milliken Thompson does a good job of portraying the time and the history of old Virginia, and The Reservoir will appeal to those interested in period dramas, especially those set in 19th century Virginia.

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