Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Boy in the Pool: Review

So....when I picked up The Boy in the Pool (1962) by Camilla R. Bittle, I totally thought I was getting a mystery (and an academic mystery at that). It was shelved in the mystery section of one of my favorite used bookstores and the dust jacket blurb made it sound like a mystery, albeit a more psychological study than a real whodunnit despite the looming question "Who was really responsible for his death?' printed right there on the jacket. This means that I am absolutely counting it for the silver card in the Just the Facts mystery challenge (death by drowning)--since I picked it out for this year's reading precisely because I thought it was a mystery and that was how it got shelved by a bookseller.

The setting is the Harrison School for Boys, a New England preparatory school with spartan, sterling traditions and attended primarily by the sons of the wealthy and the famous. The boy in question is Roger Carmichael, son of the actress Eva Carmichael, and a troublemaker from a broken home. Roger had been acting out in the previous year--mostly through petty thefts--and he was kept in the first-years' dorm where the housemaster could (theoretically) keep a closer eye on him. He winds up rooming with an introverted new boy with a hovering mother and a reserved father. Just two weeks into the new term, on the eve of the Founder's Day weekend, Roger's body is found in the pool of  the Harrison School. Though much is made of who might be responsible in the dust jacket blurb, the biggest questions seem to be "How did he get the key?" and "How can we keep this from ruining the Founder's Day activities?"

This tragedy is explicated through some of its subsequent consequences for those involved: his mother, who is not only feels guilty for having been an absent mother (sending the boy off to school) but now faces the fact that the boy will no longer serve as a connection with her divorced husband; the housemaster who is sure that Carmichael had stolen and copied his key to the gym, and Carmichael's roommate who shares that knowledge; the headmaster, an insensitive but capable administrator, who shirks moral and personal involvement and in so doing is alienating his wife;and David Ellison, the school chaplain who shows a real and needed gift for direction and guidance. 

Even though this is not the strict mystery that I expected, the novel is a very good character study. Bittle deftly takes the reader through the viewpoints of all those who feel responsible for the boy's death. She shows us their reactions, exposes their guilt and other emotional turmoil, and brings most of the conflicts to a plausible resolution--mostly happy endings that are not sewn up too tightly. I was particularly satisfied with growth of Robinson Perry, Carmichael's roommate. Rob experiences his coming of age moment and comes through like a trouper. I also believe that there really is a bit of a mystery hanging over the story--Carmichael has a wound on his head and it's never investigated properly. Did the boy slip, knock himself out, and drown? Did he dive in the shallow end? Or...did someone knock him out or push him? After all, the gym got locked up tight behind him somehow. I think perhaps Bittle left a few mysterious ends untied. 

A very interesting look at the relationships in a small, exclusive community with a hint of mystery for spice. ★★★★ 

[Finished 9/16/18]


J F Norris said...

Sounds very much like what J. B. Priestley did in AN INSPECTOR CALLS. He had a more dour outlook and used the murder mystery narrative conventions to show that many people can be responsible for one person's death.

Bev Hankins said...

John: I haven't gotten to that one yet. I'd be interested to see how Priestly handles it.