The Reservoir

Publication Date: Jun 21, 2011

368 pp

Trade Paperback

List Price US $15.95
ISBN: 9781590514443


List Price US $4.99
ISBN: 9781590514450

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

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 us.

Excerpt from The Reservoir

On March 14, 1885, a body is floating in the old Marshall Reservoir, in a light snow, and then under a waxing moon.

In the morning the superintendent of the reservoir, Lysander Meade, discovers a furrowed place on the walkway that he does not remember seeing the night before. Someone has crawled through the fence again—early in the year for youngsters to be out cavorting at night. He glances down toward the water and sees what appears to be a dress. It’s floating along the edge of the water, where the embankment slopes down to a picket fence. He’s seen a lot of oddities in his years—rubber condoms and smutty books and the occasional sack of puppies—but never a dress. He tries to imagine the scene. Mighty cold last night for such carryings-on. Except now he sees it isn’t just a dress, but a whole person. A woman. And a dead one at that, or what appears to be. Never has he found a dead woman, nor man neither for that matter.

So down he goes for a better look. Who would not want to see a dead woman? Could she be something to look at? Could she be a fine looking lady, or might she be one of your more common sorts? Mr. Lucas comes up from the pump house where he has been repairing a stopcock, and helps Mr. Meade with his speculations. They stand there together, Lucas a head taller, loose-limbed and slack-jawed, with stick-out ears, while Meade, wearing thick eyeglasses, bends rigidly forward at the waist, his navy jacket stretching across his back, his neat mustaches crinkling as he sniffs the air. All they can make out at first is a gray wool dress with flounces at the bottom and hair hanging like dark weeds about her head. “The grappling hook’s the thing,” Mr. Meade says.

Mr. Lucas comes back presently, hook at the ready. But now Mr. Meade is not so sure. He nudges the body closer to the shore. Then he stops and yells. “Hello, ma’am? Hello, miss? Hello?”

“I expect you’ll have to yell louder than that,” Mr. Lucas suggests.

“Pitch-perfect to the post-Civil War era…This is an impressive first novel…an artful vehicle for grappling with temptations and the ambiguities of guilt….The Reservoir gets stronger and richer as it rolls toward its startling climax.”­ —Jim Lynch, Washington Post

“In this compelling novel, this superb writer instructs and enchants.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Reservoir is a complex first novel that is a simmering blend of Southern tragedy, a love triangle, coming-of-age story, and crime saga.” —Historical Novels Review
“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.” —Southern Literary Review

“An engaging mystery novel rendered as Southern literature.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Solidly entertaining.” —Publishers Weekly

“Historian and debut novelist Thompson mined a treasure trove of documents and background detail for this novel, based on an actual murder and trial set in 1880s Richmond, VA…Thompson masterfully illustrates how a seemingly clear-cut case can be filled with ambiguities.” —Library Journal

“Fans of courtroom drama, historical mysteries, and Southern gothic are sure to enjoy the tale which, even once the book is finished, will keep readers wondering about what happened at the reservoir.” —ForeWord Reviews

“Gorgeously suffused with the feel of 1880s Virginia, The Reservoir is not a whodunit but, even better, a did-he-do-it… John Milliken Thompson’s debut is an all-too-human and unforgettable puzzle, rendered in haunting shades of gray.” —Holly LeCraw, author of The Swimming Pool

“It is the way people think and feel that creates the plot for this book … the characters are absolutely right from start to finish.” —Joanne Greenberg, author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

“Impressive… Even though the story takes place in Richmond, Virginia about twenty years after the Civil War ended, there was a sense of urgency on my part to get to the book’s conclusion. In other words, whenever I had to put the book down due to eyes that simply could no longer remain open, I looked forward to the moment that I could get back to this intriguing tale.” — Carol Hoenig, The Huffington Post

1. The Reservoir is set in 1885, twenty years after the end of the Civil War. How does the memory of the war infuse the narrative? What evidence do you see that the South is still recovering?

2. Tommie and Willie are raised in large part by their aunt Jane instead of their parents. How do you think this affected the boys? What kind of a surrogate mother is Jane? Lillie also had to leave her parents at a young age–does this affect her in the same way?

3. When he finds the watch key at the reservoir, why does Mr. Lucas keep it? What meaning does it have for him, and why does he ultimately decide to give it up?

4. On page 154, Tommie thinks about how he “doesn’t know if he loved [Lillie] because she desired him and held him in high esteem, or because she was so desirable herself that he melted at the thought of the smallest part of her body.” Which do you think it is? Is either of those options really love?

5. Is Lillie innocent, or does she share some part of the responsibility for all that came to pass between Tommie and her?

6. With his advanced education and budding law career, Tommie seems to be headed for success before his arrest. What do you think his life would have looked like if not for Lillie’s death? Would he have found trouble in some other way?

7. What is Tommie’s relationship with God and religion? Does Tommie take comfort in God or does he hide behind Him?

8. Why do you think the novel is structured the way that it is, alternating between the past and the present? How does that shape the way you perceive the characters?

9. On page 323, Tommie tells Willie, “You can’t undo the wrong you did. You can only do other good things. I wish I could explain that. Everybody ends up paying with their life for what they did wrong.” Do you agree with him?

10. Do you believe that Tommie is contrite at the end of the novel?

11. John Milliken Thompson based The Reservoir on a real case. How does the element of historical accuracy affect your perception of the crime committed in the novel?

12. Throughout this novel, we see characters struggle to find the truth of things. Tommie wonders “what truth [the jury is] on to” (212), and Willie has to decide whether Tommie’s account of Lillie’s death is completely true. Why is truth so hard to come by in this novel? What do you think really happened that night at the reservoir?