This is the second book of a trilogy that begins with "Killing Mr. Watson," and ends with "Bone by Bone." If you read Killing Mr. Watson, and were fascinated by it, as many readers and critics have been, you'll be tempted to read the rest of the trilogy. Dead Man's River begins many years after E.J. Watson's death. Watson's son, Lucius, is struggling to reconstruct his father's life and death. You might have noticed in Killing Mr. Watson that the story, told by those who knew Watson, contains gaps, ambiguities, contradictions and mysteries. There's plenty of room for sequels.
Lucius finds some answers, and also uncovers new mysteries and contradictions. Along the way, you'll learn more about the many fascinating characters you first encountered as narrators in "Killing Mr. Watson." The final book in the trilogy, "Bone by Bone," tells the tale again, from the point of view of Mr. Watson.
The Mr. Watson trilogy is reminiscent of the well-known film, Rashomon, by Akira Kurosawa. It re-tells the same tale several times, from different perspectives. This is a gutsy kind of trilogy to write. A lesser author would burden the reader with repetition and excessive detail. Mathiessen, one of few authors ever to win one National Book Awards for fiction, and another for nonfiction, is up to the task, if anyone is.
Dead Man's River suffers from the usual problems found in the second book in a trilogy. It doesn't begin the story, nor end it, and it's nearly incomprehensible if you haven't read the first book. Consider, who would enjoy "The Two Towers," the second book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, if he or she had not first read "The Fellowship of the Ring," and did not intend to read "Return of the King"?
If, after reading Killing Mr. Watson, you're eager to know about Mr. Watson and the other pioneer families of that time and place, read the rest of the trilogy, in sequence. I think you'll be glad you did. I certainly am glad that I did. Matthiessen is a master of so many things -- pioneer history of Florida, diverse cultures, nature writing, environmentalism, character development, historical accuracy and detail, dead-on vernacular dialog, inventive style, and, in this trilogy, compelling mystery.
Also, in this trilogy, Mathiessen explores the nature of truth itself, as the same story is retold several times by people who all think they know the truth, though their understanding is filtered by their own perspectives, limited knowledge and vested interests.
On the other hand, if Killing Mr. Watson filled your cup, you might want to stop there. It works very well as a stand-alone novel.