Friday, June 24, 2011

The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson

John Milliken Thompson’s debut historical mystery novel, The Reservoir (Other Press, 2011), starts off very promising. We are introduced to a pair of workers at a reservoir who find the body of a young pregnant woman floating lifeless in the water. This is a great set-up for a moody, atmospheric story. We have one character – one of the workers who found the body – fall into infatuation with this young lifeless woman. He takes some items from her that come back as evidence later in the novel. Too bad we never really come back to this character. He was fascinating. This reservoir worker is one of many minor characters in the novel. Unfortunately for the novel, there are many secondary characters within the text that tend to be more interesting than the main protagonist.

Based on the synopsis and cover, I was expecting a tale of lust and mystery. I was expecting a moody historical piece of southern literature, perhaps something along the lines of Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Thompson, a historian, does a great job recreating Richmond, Virginia, circa 1885. He also did a great job researching his story – the book is based on an actual case – and filling in some blanks where the historical documents left off. What I did not expect from this novel was a courtroom drama. I tend to not like courtroom dramas as fiction, to be honest. I read many, many of them as a young man (everything from the Grisham books to To Kill A Mockingbird), became a little burned out on them, and a novel set in a courtroom is going to have to be extremely compelling and have some measure of novelty to keep me involved. In fact, I would rather read true-life transcripts such as those coming out of the current Casey Anthony Trial than another court case in novel form. In fact, the Anthony case, in a way I won’t go into because of possible spoilers, parallels this case nicely. Unfortunately, for me, the court case was the centerpiece of the novel, and I felt it dragged on. I just could not get into that section of the book, and it was a very long section.

Where this novel worked best was in the flashbacks, in the descriptions of minor characters, and in the recreation of a time now long gone. The author deftly handles matters of real-world theology. Once the narration moves past the courtroom drama, the novel became extremely interesting once again. This last act of the novel is a wonderful examination of truth, religion, and resignation. I finally kind of cared about the main protagonist.

The Reservoir is a good, but not great, debut novel. The beginning and ending were well done, the historical details are engrossing, but the middle section of the text was kind of a slog. I see promise for Thompson and would pick up another book by him. There’s ample evidence of a good writer here. I just hope in the future, he dwells on his strengths as a writer (characterization, descriptions) and learns how to make the more interesting characters the primary focus of his stories instead of relegating them to the background. I find myself wondering what this novel might have looked like if written from the perspective of the reservoir worker who was the focus of the first section of the novel, the one who falls in love with the corpse? I believe his would have been an interesting world view to filter this unfolding story through.

My six-pack rating: 3 out of 6 Legend Brown Ales

*Legal Notification: Free electronic copy received from publisher via

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