The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson

14th June 2011

*You can preorder this book from Indiebound. Pub date is 06/21/11.

John Milliken Thompson’s The Reservoir sounds like a mystery: one cold morning in 1885, the body of Lillie Madison is found floating in the reservoir in Richmond, Virginia. The coroner is called. Evidence is gathered.

However, if you pass this book by because you don’t read mysteries, you’re doing yourself – and this book – a disservice. Similarly to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, the murder of Lillie Madison is based on real-life events (though unlike In Cold Blood, it is fiction), and while the murder is part of the story, it isn’t the whole story.

Lillie is dead, yes, but she was also pregnant, which originally makes police believe her death was a suicide. However, when she is linked, intimately, with her cousin Tommie Cleverius, the police are confident they have Lillie’s killer, and the couple’s background is told in flashbacks.

Tommie Cleverius is a young, up-and-coming attorney. Engaged to a wealthy woman and painted by Thompson as an ambitious and sometimes dishonest man, he is as wily as his brother Willie is salt of the earth. Raised by an aunt, Tommie and Willie have wanted for nothing. Lillie has problems at home, and she, too, comes to live with her aunt. Both boys fall for Lillie, but she leaves for school and the competition dies down.

When Lillie moves to live and care for her uncle, Tommie visits her there, several times overnight. Tommie very well could be the father of her unborn child. Even though the only evidence is circumstantial at best, once the police latch onto the idea that Lillie was murdered, Tommie is swiftly arrested and tried, but everyone, including his own brother, wants to know: did Tommie kill Lillie?

With extensive research, Thompson crafts the tale of Lillie, her life, her lovers, her family, and finally, the circumstances of her death, leaving the reader to wonder alternately if Tommie was a narcissist ridding himself of a demanding lover and unwanted child or a mostly-innocent bystander, guilty only of loving and lusting after a woman.

Though the trial and ending ran a little long for me, The Reservoir was an absorbing read, and I’m curious which group you’ll fall into if you read it. Personally, I thought Tommie was guilty as charged. However, I don’t necessarily think there was enough evidence to convict him.

Has anyone seen this book and been intrigued? Courtroom dramas are also high on my list – anyone else out there enjoy the tension of a well-written courtroom scene?

jenn aka the picky girl

*Thanks to Other Press who allowed me to review an advance ebook copy through NetGalley.

Other reviews:


  • I started this on Saturday, only stopping for coffee and sleep and finished it when I woke up Sunday. I am still torn. Part of me thinks that Tommy was guilty but another part of me wasn’t sure. Lillian had so many issues. I never thought he would have been convicted though. Willie was my far my favorite character, right to the final page.

    • pickygirl

      Same here. I thought there was just as much evidence pointing to suicide over murder even. I didn’t like Tommie, but I also wasn’t convinces he killed her.

  • I’ve got this growing list of books i want to pick up while I’m in the States. The only book I’ve read from Other Press is Galore, but that convinced me that I want to read pretty much everything they’ve published, ever. Think I’m gonna have to add this one to my wishlist…

    • pickygirl

      I know! I went back to their booth at BEA several times. They have some great titles and are just fantastic, in general.

  • I WAS intrigued by this when I read about it! It has elements I like: mystery and courtroom scenes. Sigh. How will I ever make a dent in my TBR if I keep adding books faster than I can read them?

    • pickygirl

      I know. It’s a huge problem. I try not to think about it. Unfortunately (or fortunately), Other Press keeps pubbing books that I want to put on top of my pile.

  • Eva

    Going on the TBR list! Have you read Atwood’s Alias Grace? Sooo good. And I just read a nonfic book, Courtroom 302, about a year in a Chicago courtroom: very eye opening.

    • pickygirl

      I haven’t. I’ve only read The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ll have to add that one. I worked for attorneys for several years, so that may be part of the draw. Thanks for the tip!

      • Eva

        Alias Grace is based on a real-life historical crime too, that’s why I thought of it. 🙂

        • pickygirl

          Oh cool! I definitely need to get it then.

  • The fact that it’s inspired by a true story intrigues me.

    • pickygirl

      I know! That always grabs me. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but sometimes it really gets me thinking. This one hasn’t left me.

  • i saw this one the other day and was intrigued, but decided to pass it up. your review has me thinking i should go back and request it…

    i’m on a non-fiction kick right now, so the idea of based on real events really gets me going, but i’m not usually interested in mysteries (but like you mentioned this book isn’t really neatly placed in that genre).

    maybe it’ll end up on my TBR pile after all…

    • pickygirl

      Well, if it does end up there, I’d love to know what you think. I mentioned elsewhere (can’t remember where now), but I often don’t like “based on true events” stories. Ellen Horan’s 31 Bond Street comes to mind. It can get bogged down in the real while the writer also tries to give the reader an ending. Thompson certainly ends it, but it’s done well.

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