A young pregnant woman found floating in the city reservoir is the provocative opener to this historical novel that re-imagines a famous murder case in Richmond in 1885. Much of John Milliken Thompson’s story is based on an actual trial and feels pitch-perfect to the post-Civil War era, with men getting around on horseback and visiting brothels in the brooding capital of the South.

The mysterious death of Lillie Madison triggers an inquest that swiftly leads to the door of a promising young country lawyer named Tommie Cluverius, who happens to be Lillie’s cousin. The story builds as flashbacks gradually reveal that Cluverius and Lillie had been secret lovers, an affair complicated by the fact that Cluverius’s older brother also had relations with Lillie.

Early on, all the reader knows for sure is that Cluverius was driven to hide his cousin’s pregnancy and was with her the night she died. His subsequent lies to police and his attorneys further tangle matters. He’s clearly guilty of something on the spectrum between selfish inaction and brutal murder. Yet the question persists: Did he kill her?

This is an impressive firstnovel. There are moments when it seems to be hurtling toward greatness as an artful vehicle for grappling with temptations and the ambiguities of guilt. The story is well designed and paced. Lillie and Cluverius’s loyal brother are strong characters, as are the dueling attorneys in the courtroom drama.

Yet the novel is oddly uneven, with the prose swinging from elegant to wooden. “Tommie alone of the family was left to carry out some as yet unfulfilled promise,” Thompson writes. And the second half of the book reads as if crafted by a better storyteller. More concerning, though, is the potential lack of reader engagement elicited by such a coy protagonist as Cluverius. Early on, for instance, Cluverius feels surprisingly little sadness over his cousin’s death and subsequently offers minimal introspection about his responsibility or guilt. He’s a pleasant man who exhibits the cold detachment of a villain, although the label doesn’t quite fit. Or does it? This conundrum could enrich the novel if more of it took place in the minds and actions of other characters or if the reader worried more about the fate of the enigmatic suspect.

Some of this distance from the protagonist may be the result of the author’s allegiance to the real murder investigation and trial. Thompson’s research shines, particularly during vivid courtroom scenes. But his diligence leaves him with a fictional Tommie Cluverius who may be too fuzzy and mysterious to carry a novel. In his author’s note, Thompson explains that his research brought him close to these long-dead characters. “I thought I owed it to them to get it right,” he writes, adding that he was left feeling uncertain about Cluverius’s guilt. “One can pore through pages of material and be convinced one way, then sift some more another day and completely change one’s mind.”

Exploring the grayer lines of guilt is an admirable quest, though potentially irritating in this instance. Late in the story, Cluverius remains coy and contradictory about his innocence with his brother, who is his closest friend and the person trying the hardest to save his life. His true feelings and reactions remain mostly muted even during bloodthirsty cries for his hanging. Perhaps that’s the nature of his character, but it adds to the sensation that something is missing.

“The Reservoir” gets stronger and richer as it rolls toward its startling climax. But while the pulse quickens, the impression lingers that some of the larger issues of the heart have been left unanswered. In the end, Thompson has created a novel perhaps as compelling, enigmatic and exasperating as the old murder case he chose to write about.

Lynch’s most recent novel is “Border Songs.”


By John Milliken Thompson

Other. 349 pp.

Paperback, $15.95