An Interview with John Milliken Thompson (and Giveaway)

August 05, 2011 

The Reservoir starts like any good murder mystery — with a body.  ”On March 14, 1885, a body is floating in the old Marshall Reservoir, in the light snow, and then under a waxing moon.”

The body is quickly identified as that of Lillie Madison, and she was eight months pregnant. Soon enough, there is a suspect: Tommie Cluverius, a reckless young lawyer who was Lillie’s cousin and lover.

Based on a real-life case, Thompson has deftly captured the details of the post-Civil War South, as well as the inherent drama of a high profile trial. There are certainly enough questions to keep the pages turning — whether Tommie killed Liilie, whether she committed suicide, or whether there is an even darker source of Lillie’s death. But what really makes this historical mystery stand out from the rest are the interior journeys of Tommie and his brother Willie, who was also romantically linked with Lillie for a time.

This is a novel about the ambiguities of guilt, the dark corners of temptation, and the possibility of redemption. It is a perfect read if you’re looking for a mystery with depth, or a historical novel with a contemporary current running through it (i.e., the celebrity trial).

John Milliken Thompson is the author of several nonfiction works, but this is his first novel. If you’re interested in how he discovered the actual court case and why he decided to use it as the basis for a fictional story, check out his website.

Be sure to check out the end of this post for details about how to win a free copy of The Reservoir!

The Reservoir derives from an actual court case and many of the book’s characters are based on people actually involved in the trial. How did you decide when to fictionalize and when to stay true to the historical record? Was it difficult to strike that balance?

Yes, I guess it was a kind of balancing act. My general plan was to stick with the historical record as much as I could–it’s a lot easier than having to create whole new scenes and characters. Of course, that only got me so far. There was almost nothing in the record about the backgrounds of the characters, and that’s where I did most of my imaginative work. Once the characters began coming to life, little episodes and plot twists began suggesting themselves.

Were there any books, historical fiction or otherwise, that served as models for you when you were writing The Reservoir?

Theodore Dreiser’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY and Caleb Carr’s THE ALIENIST were both helpful, the former for helping me see how a similar court case could be turned into fiction and the latter for its big-city, early 1900s setting.

How do you think the time period and setting — post Civil War South — plays into the story? Do you think that the fact that the South was still reeling from a bloody and devastating war affected the conduct or outcome of the trial?

Yes, the case was one of circumstantial evidence and so a lot depended upon the oratorical wizardry of the lawyers, respected men who had served with distinction in the war. The prosecution relied a great deal on persuading the 12 gentlemen of the jury that it was their sworn duty to protect the honor of Virginia.

The book differs somewhat from a typical mystery in that the primary question is not who did it, but whether the accused, Tommie Cluverius, did it. I don’t think I am giving anything away by saying that you raise more questions than you answer in that regard. Indeed, it seems that at times Tommie himself does not even know what truly happened. Why did you decide to structure the story in that way? Was that always your intention or did there come a time when a definitive answer was just not serving the story?

I don’t know that I’d always thought of that way, but the more I worked with the story the more interested I became in the issue of ambiguity in a case of circumstantial evidence. Since it’s partly a mystery, we’re allowed only so far into Tommie’s mind, and one of the main questions for readers then becomes not just whether he did it but just exactly what “it” is.

I was reading your book at the same time the Casey Anthony trial was coming to a close, and it struck me that the phenomenon of the celebrity trial has not changed all that much over time. Back then, like now, the community was intensely wrapped up in the details of the trial and everyone seemed to have an opinion on the guilt or innocence of the accused. Would you characterize the Cluverius trial as a celebrity trial? Do you see parallels between that trial and modern day celebrity trials?

Yes, absolutely. To tell you the truth, I’ve never had much interest in modern celebrity trials, because they can become such tawdry spectacles, exploiting tragedies that are often very personal and ugly. But, yes, this case was certainly a “celebrity” trial, as oxymoronic as that phrase is—people followed it in the newspapers for weeks and months, just as people follow trials today in the available media. Any trial, though, is by nature a public spectacle, and the larger audience becomes a de facto jury. We all have opinions on these cases. It was my hope, then, that the reader would become involved on two levels–as a paper-reading Richmond citizen, and as a family member who learns intimate details of a tragedy.

To be eligible to win a free copy of The Reservoir, published by Other Press, just leave a comment with your favorite mystery novel or courtroom drama. Whoever convinces me to read their choice wins. Entries limited to the U.S. and Canada. Contest closes at midnight EST on Friday, August 12.

3 Responses to “An Interview with John Milliken Thompson (and Giveaway)”

  1. gina Says:
    August 9th, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    I’ve been reading great reviews of The Reservoir. I didn’t think I’d want to read this book but this convinced me: “This is a novel about the ambiguities of guilt, the dark corners of temptation, and the possibility of redemption.” And so did this: “But what really makes this historical mystery stand out from the rest are the interior journeys of Tommie and his brother Willie, who was also romantically linked with Lillie for a time.”
    Romance! Intrigue! Murder!

  2. gina Says:
    August 9th, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Me, again! My recommendation is The Reader by Bernard Schlink. Post-war Germany + generational issues + and a nice twist at the end make for a compelling read. The movie’s good, too:)

  3. Ellen Says:
    August 19th, 2011 at 7:17 am

    Great review and interview. I read so many positive reviews of this that when I was home in the States last month (I live in Macedonia) I bought a copy. I tend to be hesitant to read books that play with the historical record as closely as The Reservoir does, but I love the idea of this different approach to a mystery novel – of raising more questions than are answered and exploring the characters so closely. It’s sitting on my couch right now and I think it’s about time I start reading.