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Onyx reviews: Boy in the Water by Stephen Dobyns

In his previous novel, Church of Dead Girls, Stephen Dobyns explored how the peaceful, harmony of a small town could be destroyed by gossip, rumor and innuendo. Boy in the Water reduces the playing field even further. The setting is Bishop's Hill, an end-of-the-line prep school. The faculty consists of teachers at the bottom of their respective career slumps and the students all have problems that have kept them out of better institutions. Bishop's Hill is nearing the bottom of a long slide. Its days are numbered unless someone can turn the school around.

Jim Hawthorne has been hired as the new headmaster. He is a renowned clinical psychologist whose learned papers are used to teach classes in finer institutes of learning. Against the advice of his friends and colleagues, he has made the cross-country trek from his former position in California to this new challenge in New Hampshire. Few can understand why he would throw away his promising career to lead this sinking ship of a school.

Hawthorne, too, has a past from which he is trying to escape and he throws himself headlong into the chore. He soon creates more adversaries than friends among the staff as he winnows away their long-established privileges, languor and their casual approach to the students. For Hawthorne, the students come first, a new concept for Bishop's Hill.

The prologue sets the stage for an ominous outcome to Hawthorne's first semester. A boy is shown floating in the locked school pool, a kitten perched helplessly on the boy's corpse. The viewpoint then pulls back like a camera on a massive boom to take in the setting, and to mark the locations and activities of key—but as yet unintroduced—players in the story. The novel then begins several months earlier, as Hawthorne first arrives on campus.

"Bishop's Hill is a place where things went wrong," one character comments. The new cook's assistant, a Cajun who tells a stream of off-color jokes, is a murderer. Someone appears to be trying to drive Hawthorne crazy by conjuring up ghosts from his past. Rumors and conjecture breed among the faculty and staff about the new headmaster's 'real' plans for the school. Hawthorne is unable to squelch the stories that he intends to fire certain faculty members or that he is merely there to write a book about the school. These rumors are more than idle talk: someone is deliberately fanning the flames to keep the stories alive.

There are other stories which remain carefully guarded secrets, much to Hawthorne's frustration. "Bishop's Hill was full of subjects that people preferred not to discuss," including the death of a student several years earlier and the sudden departure of the previous headmaster, in the middle of term.

While the novel is not a "whodunit" for very long as far as the killings are concerned, the murderer's co-conspirators remain veiled in secrecy and their motivation is only revealed in layers. In much the same way, the horrible tragedy which caused Hawthorne to seek out a new life is peeled away and shown to the reader a bit at a time.

The conflict builds up to an exciting climax as the killer begins to unravel and the school is isolated from the rest of the world by a major December snow storm, cutting off telephone lines, electricity and roads. Hawthorne must try to solicit the help of the few faculty members who remain to defeat the murderer and save the lives of the children.

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