EVEN THOUGH MANNY Ramirez has departed the Boston Red Sox for LA and trimmed off six inches of his hair, his presence remains one of many enjoyable authentic touches in Mary-Ann Tirone Smith and Jere Smith’s new mystery. The action in Dirty Water takes place during the team’s 2007 championship season, and the mix of “real” and mythical details is tantalizing.
And while the plot like many a good mystery revolves around a (made-up) murder, I’d like to think that the story reflects Tirone Smith’s Peace Corps leanings in the way that she touchingly humanizing many of its characters.
Here’s the start in that direction: one Sunday morning before a game, a cloaked stranger secretly drops off a baby in the Red Sox locker room. A baby in that bastion of smelly, raucous masculinity? With that, Dirty Water’s two authors, a mother-son duo, guarantee that even the reader most resistant to sports themes will be intrigued.
With its squeaks the little bundle is first mistaken in believable locker room banter for a somebody farting, then a cat meowing. This situation opens up lovely character-building possibilities that Tirone Smith and Smith don’t squander.
Team captain Jason Varitek finds the infant, and in the scenes that follow taking off a filthy blanket, discovering that “it’s” a boy and wet, adjusting the air conditioning the players respond with instant concern and tenderness. Later David “Big Papi” Ortiz takes over, protecting the powerless and helping investigators figure out the truth.
The child, quickly named Baby Ted Williams, leads to a murdered woman and complications that leap back and forth from Fenway Park to the “fens,” source of the dirty water, and as the complications pile up, to LA and Havana and back.
Early on, a mysterious Red Sox fan blogger (Jere Smith actually runs a Red Sox fan site) seems to know more than everybody. The straightforward narrative is interspersed with blog exchanges, in which enticing clues are dropped in like bobbers amidst the Bosox fan chatter.
And the trail eventually comes to my favorite part of the book, Boston Homicide Detective Rocky Patel, an Indian-American who “has Jesus in his heart but Shiva in his blood.” This tranquil and wily Hindu knows nothing about baseball. But that’s okay: human nature is his expertise. And he has an Irish-Italian Boston wife. She’s still breastfeeding their six-month-old kid and while her family feeds her Guinness Stout and gnocchi to keep up her energy, Patel slips her peach slices in yogurt. His favorite beer is Kingfisher, because, he sighs, “it’s perfumed with jasmine.”
I loved this savvy and self-deprecating nonconformist and how he quietly solves the case. I’m delighted to learn that he appears in another of Tirone Smith’s books I have yet to read, She Smiled Sweetly. I hope she keeps Patel going in future novels; he could rival the ineffable Morse.
In a note to John Coyne tucked into the review copy I received, I couldn’t help seeing that Tirone Smith wrote, “whatever you do, don’t let a Yankees fan review this book.” Tirone Smith got a Red Sox reviewer only by marriage, so I asked my husband, an RPCV who grew up in Boston, to read it too. He thoroughly enjoyed the authentic mix of Boston lore, Red Sox truth, and fiction. He prefers fast-moving action along with good writing; it spoke well of the Smiths’ well-rounded skills that while I slowed down to note the novel’s literary aspects, he kept turning the pages right to the end.
The only part we agreed sometimes didn’t work was the blog entries, which somewhat interfered with the flow but then, we’re both old-timers used to more conventional narrative. And, as a blogger myself, I admit to savoring the blogger’s role in the story, beating out both the mainstream media and police for several key breaks in the case.
Boston fans will love the many allusions and jokes in Dirty Water. But I predict that even for non-Red Sox fans, especially those who’ve followed Tirone Smith’s career through ten other books, Dirty Water comes as a happy addition. It’s infused with fondness not just for Boston and baseball but also for the richness of cross-cultural urban life. Dirty Water delivers its base hits with warmth, wit and intrigue.
Jan Worth-Nelson, a writing teacher at the University of Michigan Flint and author of the Peace Corps novel Night Blind, is not a Yankee fan.