75 of 78 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2000
It has been several years since I read this book...but I have enjoyed few others as I have enjoyed this one. Using multiple voices, Matthiessen tells the story of E.J Watson, a homesteader in the turn-of-the-century Everglades. Matthiessen tells the story in the 1st person, from the point of view of various friends of Watson, family members, and enemies within the Chokoloskee community.
Matthiessen has clearly immersed himself in the lives of Florida pioneers, and conveys the harshness of their lives, and that sticky, fetid overripeness so characteristic of Florida, brilliantly. He clearly loves his players, and adeptly creates "whole" people in even distasteful characters.
I've bought this book for friends who haven't been able to finish it...I have no idea why. Too much MTV, I guess, has rotted their attention spans! It may take 20 or so pages to get used to the shifting voices, but it is far from a difficult read, and you will find yourself compelled by the narrative.
This book has two sequels: Lost Man's River (told from the perspective of Watson's grown son), and Bone by Bone (told from the p.o.v. of Watson himself). Both are worth a look.
36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 2003
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.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 1998
Matthiessen does a superb job of weaving the known facts of Edgar Watson together with his own imagination to create a novel that is truly a joy to read. It reminded me of Shogun in that it was one of those really great book reading experiences that gives the reader a sense of history and geography while telling a story that I couldn't put down after the first 50 pages. It's the first thing I've read of Matthiessen's, and I'm looking forward to my next one - probably The Snow Leopard. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is a fan of good writing, and not hack storytelling. I loved it.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2002
In novels displaying typical craftsmanship, assigning names to characters who may have little bearing on the story is avoided-why confuse the reader unnecessarily! But in Matthiessen's tale in which each chapter is told from the perspective of one person, numerous names of brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, cross-breeds and others are given time and again, all the while the focus is kept on just who is Mr. Watson and what makes him tick. There may be some confusion here, but it's of the type that comes from sitting on the porch across from someone who is telling you his or her story, and you realize there isn't a need to always interrupt and request the person identify every incidental person who shows up in the tale. Rather, you are taken in by the great story overall and by the teller, who turns out to be quite an interesting character himself. This is the case with `Killing Mister Watson.' Moreover, this maze of characters and their various contrasting views on Edgar Watson tend to further illuminate the geographical flavor of South Florida which Matthiessen describes as `labyrinthine.' Just as it is easy to become lost among the mangroves and the rivers, so is it equally difficult to decipher the truths and falsehoods of the folks who lived there around the turn of the twentieth century and knew Mister Watson. I liked this book. I liked it a lot.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 1999
Peter Matthiessen is a writer of enormous sensitivity and skill. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he eschews the cliches of cynicism and nihilism, and retains a measure of idealism about the possibilities of life.
One of Matthiessen's great skills is to reproduce the local speech of simple people in a way that combines seeming authenticity with striking literary effect. Matthiessen tells the story of Mr. Watson by means of chapter-length monologues delivered by different characters in the local vernacular -- or at least Matthiessen's literary rendition of that vernacular. His ability to make those monologues seem completely authentic, while at the same time investing them with literary significance, reminded me of Twain (particularly "Huckleberry Finn") and Faulkner.
My only possible misgiving about the novel is that the author seems unwilling to pass judgment of any kind on the reputed killer, Mr. Watson. Is this because fact is so difficult to separate from fantasy that we cannot know if Mr. Watson was truly an evil man? Or is it because good and evil were relative concepts in the harsh wilderness of the Gulf coast islands in the 19th Century? Perhaps Matthiessen decided to withhold that judgment until the two later books of the trilogy, which I have not yet read.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 24, 2002
Peter Matthiessen is best known for his nature-and-exploration writing, but he has also written his share of novels and other fiction. In "Killing Mr. Watson" he blends both fiction and fact with the stunning result being a narrative which shows us, from many points of view, just how one person is judged by the community in which he lives.
Set in the close quarters of the Florida Everglades in the early 1900s, the novel examines one Edgar J. Watson (an actual figure about whom little is known). His neighbors, friends and family each offer up their take on the mysterious Mr. Watson, who may or may not be a murderer, who may have come by his fortune in roundabout and not entirely legal ways, who may be everything he seems to be and may be someone else entirely. The Florida setting is key--just as the local swamps nurture all manner of plantlife, so do the heat and sun and lack of population nourish all manner of outrageous opinion and gossip about Mr. Watson.
Matthiessen uses the narrative to great effect, presenting Mr. Watson in first this light, then this, then another light altogether. The ultimate effect is almost that of a magician's illlusion--all smoke and mirrors--everything sounds plausible until you read the next thing, which makes you question everything that's gone before.
Narrative technique aside, this is just a gripping read. Mr. Watson speeds unknowingly towards his fate--which may surprise you--just as the reader speeds towards the end, wanting--needing--to know what happens to this enigmatic and utterly fascinating man. "Killing Mr. Watson" is a novelistic achievement of the first order.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 2004
It took me a few chapters to get totally hooked on this narrative. At first, I wondered why I'd want to read a book that gave the ending in the first few paragraphs as well as in its title. Soon, though, I realized that not only is this a well-written historical novel about the early years of Florida's development, it's a haunting exploration into the nature of human beings. How all of Mr. Watson's acquaintances, neighbors, and even family members are influenced by his personality, his actions, the stories that are written about him, the inuendos that float about, and how all of this confusion results in his death, all combine to make an amazingly thoughtful story. This book still occupies a corner of my mind, weeks after I've finished it.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 25, 1998
I recommend this book to anyone who likes their stories with insight into the darker nature of man. There's much food for thought on that respect here. At the sametime, this is an intriguing story woven from historical facts set in an equally intriguing period of history; turn of the century, frontier Everglades. Its like a Western but its dirtier, darker and more evil.
I loved the writing. Matthiessen writes from several characters' perspectives and does so in a Mark Twain-esque style. I think the author has keen perception of human nature. He paints a vivid and convincing portrait of the lives and times.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 21, 2000
I've read this book twice. It was even better the second time around. There was too much of a time gap between it and the second and third books of the trilogy, so I had to go back to it. If you read this book, read the other two right away. I am now re-reading the second volume
This book reveals how difficult it is to really know the truth about a person. Written as a series of interviews with people who knew Mr. Watson, we see the man from different perspectives, but we never have a direct encounter with him..
The characters who tell their stories about Mr. Watson, make their judgments based on personal experience, hearsay, and fantastic rumors. One person's Mr. Watson is not always the same as another person's Mr. Watson. Sometimes the perspectives overlap. Sometimes they are polar opposites. Mr. Watson himself seems to deliberately project different personas depending on whom he is with.
Throughout the book Mr. Watson remains an enigma. In the end we don't know if he really was good or evil, or perhaps both. What we do know is the difficulty his neighbors have dealing the ambiguity of Mr. Watson, and how their need to resolve the ambiguity leads to the killing of Mr. Watson.
In the second volume of the trilogy, Lost Man's River, 40 years after Mr. Watson's death, we follow Mr. Watson's son, Lucius, as he tries to define his father as a fundamentally good person in the face of ambiguous evidence. In the third volume, Bone on Bone, we finally meet Mr. Watson, and we learn the events of his life that end up with his neighbors killing him on the beach.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 1997
Perhaps the book facinated me because my great-grandfather is Henry Thompson, Mr. Watson's boat captain. Perhaps it was the Everglades itself, where both of my parents grew up, which intrigued me. My mom had told me the tales of Mr. Watson. It was fun to see some of the colorful people of the Chokoloskee Bay area in their own well written novel.