BOY IN THE WATER

By Stephen Dobyns

Henry Holt. 406 pp. $25

Reviewed by Chris Bohjalian

High school is never an easy time for a teenager, given the hormonal chaos, every teenager's wildly vacillating self-image, and the realization that he will never be as cool as the fictional characters he watches on TV at night when he's supposed to be deciphering the hieroglyphics that some teacher has insisted is a calculus problem. Try as he might, he will never be as hip as Buffy or Dawson or Brandon.

At Bishop's Hill, the fictional (and profoundly dysfunctional) northern New Hampshire boarding school in Stephen Dobyns's new thriller, Boy in the Water, they have much greater concerns. The faculty does too: Somebody has been putting sharp objects in the food. And someone among them knows how to slip an ice pick into the base of the skull and kill a person instantly.

Once a part of the New England prep-school elite, Bishop's Hill has fallen on very hard times indeed. Enrollment is down, the endowment has all but disappeared, and the school's reputation has become suspect. Most of the faculty "taught at Bishop's Hill because they couldn't go elsewhere," and most of the students are at the school "simply because no place else would take them." When educators discuss the institution's future, the debate is usually whether to tear the place down or sell the buildings and grounds to a profitable, private company that runs residential treatment programs for troubled adolescents. Either way, most people assume this staggering dinosaur of a school is going to close.

Enter new headmaster, Jim Hawthorne. Hawthorne is an unlikely arrival because he is smart and successful and charismatic. A renowned clinical psychologist with a national reputation, he has come to Bishop's Hill straight from running the prestigious Wyndam School, a residential treatment center in San Diego. No one can figure out why in the world he would take on such a sorry excuse for a school as Bishop's Hill.

Slowly, however, the truth about Hawthorne emerges, and he is in fact every bit as beaten and scarred as his new institution. He left San Diego because his wife and young daughter died in a fire in their on-campus home, and the blaze had been set -- on purpose -- by one of Hawthorne's students. Hawthorne himself was badly burned in the fire, having returned to campus just as the flames were racing through the building in which his family lived, but it is the emotional scars that run deepest. Just what was the eminent Hawthorne doing with some young woman in a jazz club while his wife and daughter were trapped in the blaze?

Soon after arriving at Bishop's Hill, Hawthorne discovers that saving the place is going to be an infinitely more difficult challenge than he had realized. He is not merely distrusted by the entrenched faculty and administrators; he is disliked. Someone is leaving rotten food on his door. Someone is phoning him all hours of the day and night and claiming to be his dead wife -- and begging him to join her. And then there's that painting of school founder Ambrose Stark. It appears, it seems, wherever Hawthorne is . . . and all too often Stark's lips seem to be moving.

By late fall, poor student Scott McKinnon has been found floating dead in the school pool, with the kitten of young stripper-turned-student Jessica Weaver hanging on to the corpse's shoulders for dear life. The school psychiatrist seems to have killed himself. And the school chef has vanished into the cold and darkness of a northern New England November, while his assistant -- a creepy new guy who loves filthy riddles -- has begun to frighten the students who help out in the kitchen.

Dobyns, a poet as well as the author of the "Saratoga" mystery series, is an absolute master at building the small literary biosphere of suspense: that claustrophobic little world where any page can hold something scary. The Church of Dead Girls, his 1997 novel about an upstate New York village torn apart by paranoia when teenage girls start disappearing, is the sort of story that makes it extremely difficult to get out of bed at night -- even if you're not a teenage girl. It's a terrifying window into the soul of a town gone bad.

Boy in the Water isn't quite that frightening, largely because the tale is told in the third person instead of the first. It is one of those unfortunate realities of third-person thrillers, but the truth is that whoever's head you're not in -- well, he or she or they are usually the creeps behind the crimes.

Still, Dobyns exacts every last measure of fear from the faculty and students who reside at Bishop's Hill, and his narrative has undeniable momentum. Will Hawthorne be able to save his new school? Will he be able to exorcise the demons that have dogged him since the death of his wife and daughter? Will he simply survive the first semester? Once again, Dobyns has offered readers a thriller that is swift and smart and very, very spooky.

Chris Bohjalian is the author of six novels, including "Midwives" and "The Law of Similars." He lives in northern New England.