"The Reservoir" (Other Press, $15.95), the fine debut work by John Milliken Thompson, set in Richmond's 1880s, invites the reader through a doorway of time to see, hear and feel a city struggling to rise from the ashes of the Civil War to reclaim its cultural identity.
Among the pages, many Richmond area touchstones are brought back to life as Tommie Cluverius, a young, self-consumed, "too big for his britches" lawyer from a good family in King and Queen County is implicated in the murder of a girl in Richmond — leaving her body floating in the city's drinking-water supply. The scandal sets off a trial sensationalized by the papers and attracts inhabitants drawn to the spectacle and drama. While the novel hinges on the mystery and a "tale of lust, seduction, and ... [perhaps] cold-blooded murder," the deeper mystery is personal and familial. Tommie wrestles with his nature while Thompson meticulously details the nuances of his persona and artfully deepens his motives.
The strange thing is that we begin to find real empathy for what may well be a sociopath. Regardless of the artifacts found at the crime scene, or the solely circumstantial evidence that may lead to a conviction, Tommie's character takes the reader's hand, places it on his chest, and says: "Do you feel that? It's a heart ... different from everybody's. You don't know what's in my heart any more than I know what's in yours."
Somehow, justice must be satisfied — even as the author suggests that the court "got it all wrong" — Tommie and his family must concede that his nature is "mutable and unfathomable." This book soars beyond the narrow genres of crime-trial mystery and well-researched period piece. The author's skill takes this book to the loftier climes of literature. There's an Eden vs. Ruin interplay that works nicely as the characters dart between the pastoral and the heart of Richmond, the lost and the idealized, dragging behind their propensity for innocence and evil. S