Bread with added tin-tacks

By Mark Sanderson
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The Independent Culture

Boy in the Water by Stephen Dobyns (Viking £9.99)

Boy in the Water by Stephen Dobyns (Viking £9.99)

An accomplished poet as well as a best-selling author - The Church Of Dead Girls sold more than 100,000 copies in 1997 - Stephen Dobyns has never received the critical appreciation he deserves in Great Britain. This has probably less to do with the fact that he is an American than that he also writes detective novels. In some literary circles an ability to produce work both highbrow and lowbrow is viewed with suspicion: doesn't such versatility, or rather prolificacy, hint at a lack of seriousness?

When Gore Vidal wrote his crime novels he did so under the name of Edgar Box. Dobyns's refusal to use a pseudonym suggests that he makes no distinction between books he writes with his left-hand and those he writes with his right. He is not an intellectual snob.

The corpse in Boy In The Water, Dobyns's 20th novel, is fished out of the "natatorium" of Bishop's Hill Academy, a private school for children with special needs in the depths of the New Hampshire countryside. In fact there are two bodies in the pea-soupy water: a mewing kitten is marooned on the shoulders of the floater. How it got there is just another drop in the sea of troubles facing Dr James Hawthorne, the new headmaster brought in to save the school.

Hawthorne is a clinical psychologist who believes that incentives are more effective than punishment. He quotes Erich Fromm, the German analyst forced to flee the Nazis in 1933: "Destructivity is the result of an unlived life." Nobody should be denied the opportunity to change; everybody has within them the potential for good. Most of his third-rate staff disagree. Their jobs simply mean keeping control of their abused and abusive charges. Education hardly comes into it. Hawthorne aims to teach them all a lesson.

One of the reasons the newcomer is met with such "indifference, distrust and dislike" is that no one can understand why the former director "of one of the most prestigious treatment centers in the country" should turn up at a sink school. Hawthorne is not sure himself but, having lost his wife and daughter in a horrific arson attack in San Diego, he is seeking release through work. As this back-story is gradually revealed, it becomes clear that the headmaster is punishing himself and therefore accepts all that his unknown enemies can throw at him: rotten food, ghostly visitations from one of his long-gone predecessors, and persistent telephone calls from his dead wife. Hawthorne strives to make a difference to the lives of his pupils even though his own sanity is being tested to the limit. He tells them what Marcus Aurelius said: "You may break your heart, but men will still go on as before."

The men in this utterly compelling thriller include a tactless bursar who wears "humorous" ties, a hard-nosed cop, and the baker of superb bread who, alas, sometimes spoils it by adding tin-tacks. The women include a rather fetching Spanish mistress; a lesbian nurse; and a 15-year-old stripper determined to rescue her younger brother from their paedophiliac stepfather. As these and dozens of other characters converge on Bishop's Hill the scene is set for a snow-bound climax straight out of The Shining, complete with ice-pick-wielding psychopath. There are plenty of surprises but the real twist comes when Dobyns implies this killer - whom we have hated all along - deserves our sympathy too. And he is being serious.