As the title implies, this is the story of a murder, one committed in the Florida Everglades in 1910. The book opens with a description of the death of Edgar J Watson, a pioneer homesteader, at the hands of a mob of his neighbours, who believe him to have been responsible for a number of killings that have taken place in the area. It then proceeds to tell Watson's story through the eyes of those who knew him, each chapter being related by a different narrator to the previous one. Interspersed with these are a number of brief chapters related by the author himself, assuming the role of a historian trying to find out the truth about what he calls the "Watson legend". (Watson was, in fact, a real person, and, although this is a work of fiction, it is based around historical events.)
The one voice we do not hear in the course of this novel is that of Watson himself; he is always referred to in the third person, never in the first. As a result of Mr Matthiessen's multiple-narrator technique, the truth about Watson's character and the events surrounding him, even those following his move to Florida, remains ambiguous. (We hear rumours, but no direct testimony, about his previous life in several other states). Was Watson good or evil, or a mixture of the two? Was his death the work of a vindictive lynch mob or justifiable killing in self-defence? Was he really guilty of the murders attributed to him, or the victim of unjustified suspicion? Mr Matthiessen never gives a final answer to these questions, but allows the reader to decide for himself or herself. Certainly, the various narrators disagree among themselves; while some clearly hate Watson, others point to his good qualities- his love for his family, his capacity for hard work, his honesty in his business dealings. Although this is the story of a murder, it bears little resemblance to the conventional whodunit, in which there is always a Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple to act as deus ex machina and to reveal the truth to the reader and to the other characters. Rather, it is more similar to a real-life crime, in which all concerned, be they witnesses, police officers, prosecutor, defender, judge and jury have to try to make sense of a mass of conflicting evidence and testimony.
The air of ambiguity with which Mr Matthiessen invests his narrative would, in some books, be a weakness; here, it is a strength. By allowing his characters to tell the story in their own words, with no omniscient narrator to give the definitive version of events, he is able to achieve a greater depth and complexity than would be possible with a conventional third-person narrative. Although Watson is an enigmatic character, he is nevertheless a powerfully-drawn and memorable one.
Equally powerful is the description of the novel's setting. The dense, steamy, low-lying mangrove forests and swamps which made up much of Southern Florida in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were very different geographically to the high plains, deserts and mountains of the Wild West, but in cultural terms they had much in common. Both had only recently been settled by white settlers, who brought with them a culture that incorporated much of the best and the worst in American society. The best- the virtues of independence, self-reliance and hard work. The worst- the lawlessness, the obsession with honour, the willingness to settle all disputes at gunpoint, the racialism directed against both blacks and Indians. Florida today may be America's vacationland; a hundred years ago, it was the Wild South, the last remaining frontier on the east coast, a place where man was not yet in full control, where Watson and those like him struggled to make a living in the face of a hostile nature. (A hurricane plays an important part in the final turn of events in the book).
In this book, Mr Matthiessen has succeeded in the creation of a highly believable fictional world, with a fascinating character at its centre. A novel well worth reading.