Book Review: The Reservoir, John Milliken Thompson

The ReservoirThe Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“On March 14, 1885, a body is floating in the old Marshall Reservoir, in a light snow, and then under a waxing moon.” From its opening sentence, The Reservoir draws in the reader with harsh details rendered in shapely language. This is historical fiction at its entertaining, dramatic, and authentic best.

Historian and short story writer John Milliken Thompson read a paragraph in a history of Richmond, VA that sparked his curiosity. His research took him deep into 1880’s Virginia, into the death of a single, pregnant woman and the sensational trial of a promising young lawyer. He emerged with a classical Greek tragedy that is rich with period detail and crime noir suspense. It’s all here: passion and lust, brotherly love and rivalry, trust and betrayal, tenderness and violence. But murder? You be the judge…

This is not a page-burner. The suspense builds slowly, as the story winds back and forth in time and the details of the dead woman’s last days, as well as her childhood, are reconstructed. It’s like sipping a few fingers of small batch bourbon, not tossing back a belt of Wild Turkey. You’ll want to savor the nuance and the smoldering tension as the characters’ true natures emerge and you piece together the clues. Milliken Thompson does a masterful job of giving his characters multiple dimensions. No one wears shining armor or angel’s wings, but neither is anyone completely black of heart. Well, almost no one…

I was also impressed by the way the author shows the South struggling to adapt in this generation after the Civil War. The societal contrasts are striking: Slavery is abolished but racial oppression remains; cities are rapidly modernizing, but the South is still an agrarian region; most women have little say in their social or economic futures, but some are finding their way into higher education and white-collar employment.

The latter third of the book is a gripping courtroom drama that will have you racing to the end. What you discover in the final pages may not be at all what you’d expected. It is not an easy ending, but it is perfectly executed. What you can be certain of is a brilliantly written drama that brings immediate life to a long-ago tragedy.

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