Peter Matthiessen’s sixth novel is partly the history of a violent man, Edgar J. Watson, a historical figure about whom there continue to be many rumors but few facts. It is also partly a record of the way in which the prolific wildlife of southern Florida, west of the Everglades, was destroyed in a few short years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the sparse remaining records, Matthiessen has constructed a story that, as he says in an author’s note, contains “nothing that could not have happened.”
The story is told through the imaginary reminiscences of nine of the people who lived in the area and knew Watson during the years between his arrival in 1892 and his death in 1910, as well as through fictitious historical accounts and newspaper reports. Among the narrators are Watson’s friend and employee, Henry Thompson; Bill House, a solid citizen who has worked for the French plume hunter and misanthrope, Jean Chevelier, and who is a reluctant but important participant in the shooting of Watson; and Watson’s sentimental and conventional daughter, Carrie Watson Langford, whom her father married off for political reasons when she was fourteen years old.
The narrators provide various pictures of Watson and what his contemporaries thought of him. Soon after his arrival in the islands, he buys a land claim from a widow whose husband had been killed in a gunfight. Rumors about Watson’s tendency to violence begin to circulate when his property is enlarged following the death of Chevelier. The Frenchman had promised in a will to leave his holdings to two young members of the Richard Hamilton family who looked after him in his final illness, but when they arrive at his home for a routine visit they find Watson, who tells them that Chevelier is dead and buried and that he had sold him a quitclaim deed to the property. No will ever surfaces. The young Hamiltons are frightened away, and the story begins to circulate that Watson helped Chevelier to his death.
Watson’s reputation for violence continues to grow, even as he establishes himself more firmly as the most successful planter and trader in southwestern Florida. In an encounter with a local landowner, he uses a knife to cut the man’s throat, not quite fatally; the man and his family sell out and move away. A book about the West surfaces, containing the story that Watson murdered the famous Western outlaw, Belle Starr; two cowboys who come looking for Watson to avenge Belle Starr’s death are shot by another local gunman. It becomes general knowledge that Watson grew up in northern Florida but was forced to flee the area because of a murder charge. In the West, he committed at least one more murder, possibly killed Belle Starr, was jailed as a horse thief in Arkansas but escaped, and returned to northern Florida, before finding his way to Chatham Bend, the location of his plantation.
Watson’s home, Chatham Bend, becomes a place for other people to avoid. Many of the fishermen and hunters refuse to pass by in their boats unless they are carrying loaded weapons. Before his wife, Jane, and their children join him there, Watson has a housekeeper who bears him a daughter, and the housekeeper’s sister is also among his mistresses. Other rumors circulate—one implies that laborers on Watson’s place may be killed when they ask for their wages, but because most of these men are black or Indian none of the local whites inquires too closely into the facts. When two deputies try to arrest Watson in connection with a murder, they are frightened away.
Even as the people of the area fear Watson, most of them claim to like and respect him. He is unfailingly polite to everyone, especially women; he has more education than his neighbors; he is generous when people in the area need help; he is a handsome man and the most skillful businessman in the area; he pays all of his bills promptly; and he has a vision of the potential economic expansion of the area and his role in it—the Frenchman, Chevelier, calls him “l’empereur.” Many of the narrators refuse to believe the stories about him, although it is clear that they are very cautious in their dealings with him. He gains some sympathy because his genteel wife, Jane, is very ill. She moves to Fort Myers with her younger children and before long she dies.
The first half of Killing Mister Watson moves rather slowly. Chevelier receives much attention as an irascible man who hunts plume birds (egrets) for the market, but who at the same time is appalled at the wholesale destruction of birds, alligators, and other wildlife—first by local hunters and eventually by tourists who slaughter indiscriminately for mere pleasure. Chevelier is finally pushed over the edge when Northerners find the treasure trove of Indian artifacts he had been searching for ever since coming into the area. The priceless relics are moved north, eventually to be destroyed in a fire. When they are taken away, Chevelier is too sick and disgusted even to protest; he prepares to die.
The first half of the novel develops a picture of an essentially lawless frontier society. The people of the area are poor, hardworking, suspicious of outsiders, and resentful of the encroachment of external authority....