The Reservoir – Book Review

On March 14, 1885, a body is floating in the old Marshall Reservoir, in a light snow, and then under a waxing moon. – from The Reservoir, page 1 –

One early spring, post-civil war morning in Richmond, Virginia, a young woman is found floating in the city reservoir. She is nearly eight months pregnant, and initial speculation is that she threw herself into the waters to commit suicide. But certain elements of the case appear suspicious: two sets of footprints around the scene, a bruise on the victim’s head, and a gold watch key which may not have belonged to the dead woman. When the victim’s identity is discovered to be Fannie Lillian Madison (“Lillie”), investigators focus in on Tommie Cluverius, a young lawyer who apparently was having an illicit relationship with Lillie, and who also happens to be her cousin.  What unfolds is a stunning arrest and trial which inflames the imaginations of the people of Richmond. Did Tommie murder his pregnant lover in cold blood, or is there more to the story than first meets the eye?

The Reservoir is based on a true murder case: “T.J. Cluverius v. the Commonwealth.” John Milliken Thompson provides a fictionalized account of the case, delving into the lives of Lillie, Tommie and Tommie’s older brother, Willie (who also had a relationship with Lillie). From the beginning, there is no other suspect in the case but Tommie, but Thompson’s novel imagines several scenarios of what actually happened on that cold night at the edge of a dark reservoir. The narration moves back and forth in time from the days immediately following the drowning and the trial which unfolds, to Tommie and Willie’s childhood, to Tommie’s developing relationship with Lillie. Thompson builds his novel to that one night and asks the compelling question, “What really happened?”

Although this is clearly an historical novel, it is also a bit of a psychological thriller. Thompson attempts to get beneath the facts in the case and explain motivation. The relationship between the two brothers, Tommie who is an ambitious young lawyer and Willie who is a simple farmer, comes into play in the story. Both men found themselves drawn to Lillie in a romantic way, although it is Tommie who allows his affair to unravel his life and those around him. Willie’s steadfast support of his brother never wavers despite his mixed feelings about Tommie’s guilt or innocence.

The Reservoir takes a bit of time to hook the reader. There are many minor characters and in the first third of the book, Thompson establishes the players and their backgrounds. Thompson’s style is to build the story gradually…and I eventually found myself fully engrossed as the trial unfurled. Thompson does an admirable job at teasing out the subtleties in the case and presenting alternatives to the original charge of first degree murder. I found Tommie a largely unreliable narrator and a narcissist, someone who struck me as capable of murder…but don’t take my word for it. This would make an excellent discussion book because nothing is completely clear, and I am sure that, as in most controversial trials, there will be a wide variety of opinions.

While not perfect, The Reservoir is an absorbing book for those readers who enjoy crime novels. This is not a whodunnit, but more of a psychological study of the story behind a murder. There are no huge revelations or surprises, in fact, the book raises more questions than it answers…which is what makes it unique in its genre.


  • Quality of Writing:
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Overall Rating:

Other reviews of this book:

Have you reviewed The Reservoir? Leave me a link to your review in the comments and I’ll add it above.

Read more about John Milliken Thompson and his work, and get additional background on The Reservoir, by visiting the author’s website.

I read this book as part of BOOK CLUB – and the discussion we had was interesting. You can read the full discussion here (but be advised, there are spoilers).

Many thanks to Other Press who sent me a copy of The Reservoir as part of BOOK CLUB, and for review on my blog.

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  1. I agree that The Reservoir raises more questions than it answers. I loved the psychological aspect of the book and the fact that it was based on a real crime.

  2. You’re not the first one to say this book starts out slowly. The fact that it’s based on a true story interests me though.

  3. I’m glad that it ended up getting high marks from you even with all of the questions and small set backs. I really ewnjoyed the book and I loved discussing it, too. It would be a great one for an in-person book club or a chapter by chapter discussion because there is so much that happens, psychologically that I felt I needed to talk to someone about as it unfolded. Beautiful review!

  4. I’ve been a bit on the fence about this one. While I love historical novels based on true stories and literary thrillers, I’m not a huge fan of Southern fiction. Granted, I did love Scottsboro, and in some ways it sounds quite similar. I think I’m still on the fence about this one. If I come across a copy at the library, I may be tempted to pick it up.

  5. I am curious about this book. I really like the cover!

  6. I think it’s the historical bits that would appeal to me the most, rather than the true crime bits. I have also heard from others that the first section of the book can be a little slow, but that’s not a problem if it rewards patient reading in the end. I am glad that you liked this one, and have already decided that I need to read it. Thanks for the excellent review!

  7. Sounds interesting, even if it is slow to start off with. May look out for it.

    • Wendy on August 2, 2011 at 06:40

    Stephanie: The psychological aspects were the most interesting, weren’t they?

    Kathy: Despite its slow start, I think this was a very well written book.

    Pam: I agree – it is a great discussion book (I liked how everyone had a little different idea about how the crime unfolded).

    Carrie: Although there is obviously a Southern flavor to this one, it is not so reliant on place…the draw, in my opinion, is the psychological tone.

    Kailana: It is a cool cover, isn’t it?

    Heather: You’re welcome – I think you will enjoy this one.

    Nikki-ann: Hope you’ll enjoy it!

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