Monday, July 11, 2011
The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson
This debut novel and mystery is drawn from a true story that was the sensation of 1885 in Richmond, Virginia. A young, unmarried, pregnant woman is drowned in the city reservoir, presumably by her paramour: a young lawyer on his way up who also happens to be her cousin. Newspaper records of the time whipped up a frenzied appreciation of the scandal among townspeople, who flocked to attend the trial. The accused was gifted in many ways…he could write well and spoke with conviction; he kept his head under crushing pressures; he was not unpleasant to look upon, and dressed soberly but well. He cut a fine figure of a man and was an ideal defendant in many ways. This novel is what might have been the backstory to the trial, richly imagined by a man 125 years later. Court documents and evidence of the trial are still available: letters, photographs, a watch key.
Just as townspeople were riveted a century ago, we read the story of this ill-begotten romance, not knowing if the defendant should be accused of murder. The length of the trial and the sensationalism of the evidence kept it in the news for some time, and the author does a good job of revealing outcomes slowly, just as would have been done at the time. We are as unsure what burdened the hearts of the victim and her cousin. Some readers have pointed out that the courts have changed so much that it doesn’t seem possible we are talking about the same legal system. While I cannot speak to this, I can say that the death penalty was still in vogue, and I could hardly wait to hear what the defendant would reveal in his own defense…and sucked in my breath when yet another piece of crucial evidence succumbed to flames by well-meaning relatives. It was hard to remember this is fiction, until we realize once again that it was not.
So what was fiction and what was fact? A reader will be able to discern the outlines of the case easily and can spend hours ruminating over what was known, by whom, and when. It is a story that stays with one, and is a cautionary tale as well. What comes across loud and clear is that the family of the defendant was also victim to the crime, for it was badly torn by the allegations. I can’t help but think this would make a marvelous film. All the material could be portrayed through edited scenes and pictures and would be a great vehicle for actors able to confuse us viewers as jurors. The ending is unknowable until the very end. Kudos go to the author, John Milliken Thompson, for recognizing a story when he saw it.
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