Monday 28 July 2008

Perils of sculling

I've just read Laura Lippman's latest, Another Thing to Fall, starring her rowing detective Tess Monaghan, based in and around the city of Baltimore, and a jolly good romp it is. Uniquely, it starts with a Grade 1 joke about sculling, specifically what might happen when you travel fast, backwards and effectively deaf:

The headphones were a mistake. She realized this only in hindsight, but then—what other vision is available to a person heading backward into the world? True, they were good old- fashioned headphones, which didn't seal tightly to the ear, not earbuds, which she loathed on principle, the principle being that she was thirty- four going on seventy.

Furthermore, she had dialed down the volume on her Sony Walkman — yes, a Sony Walkman, sturdy and battered and taxicab yellow, not a sleek little iPod in a more modern or electric shade. Still, for all her precautions, she could hear very little. And even Tess Monaghan would admit that it's important to be attuned to the world when one is charging into it backward, gliding along the middle branch of the Patapsco in a scull and passing through channels that are seldom without traffic, even in the predawn hours.

But Tess had painstakingly rationalized her way into trouble, which, she decided later, is pretty much how everyone gets into trouble, one small rationalization at a time. She wanted to row, yet she felt obligated to listen to her boyfriend on a local radio show, promoting the Oktoberfest lineup at her father's bar. Besides, he planned to play some songs by Brave Combo, a nuclear polka band that Tess quite liked. She would row a path that was familiar to her, and trust the coxswains for the fours and eights to watch her back, a courtesy offered to all scullers.

It did not occur to Tess to row a little later, or skip the workout altogether. The rowing season traditionally ended after Thanksgiving, a mere month away. She had to take advantage of every waning day, especially now that Baltimore was in its full autumnal glory. If aliens had landed in Baltimore on this particular October morning, they would have concluded that it was the most perfect city on the globe they were about to conquer, truly the Charm City it claimed to be. The trees were tinged with gold and scarlet, the breeze was light, the sky was slowly deepening into the kind of brilliant blue that reminded Tess that she once knew the word cerulean, if only because it had been on the vocabulary lists for the SATs. She set out for Fort McHenry, at the distant tip of Locust Point, rationalizing every stroke of the way: She knew the route so well, it was so early, the sun not even up. She had beaten the other rowers to the water, arriving in darkness and pushing off from the dock at first light. She wouldn't wear the headphones on the way back. She just needed to hear Crow on WTMD, listen to him play a few snippets of Brave Combo, then she would turn off the Walkman and — That's when the police boat, bullhorn blaring, crossed into her line of vision and came charging toward her. By the time she registered everything that was happening — the approaching boat, the screams and shouts coming from all directions, the fact that someone was very keen that she stop or change course — the motorboat had stopped, setting up an enormous, choppy wake that was going to hit her sideways. Tess, trying frantically to slow and steady her scull, had a bona fide moment of prescience. Granted, her vision extended only two or three seconds into the future, but it was uncannily exact: She was going to go ass over teakettle into the Patapsco, a body of water that even conquering aliens from a water-deprived planet would find less than desirable. She closed her eyes and shut her mouth as tightly as possible, grateful she had no cuts or scratches into which microbes could swim.

At least the water held some leftover summer warmth. She broke the surface quickly, orienting herself by locating the starshaped fort just to the north, then the wide channel into the bay to the east of the fort, toward which her vessel was now drifting.

"Get my shell," she spluttered to the police boat, whose occupants stared back at her, blank faced. "My shell! My scull! MY GODDAMN BOAT." Comprehension dawning, the cops reached out and steadied her orphaned scull alongside the starboard side of their boat. Tess began to swim toward them, but a second motorboat cut her off.

A man sat in the stern of this one, his face obscured by a baseball cap, his arms crossed over a fleece vest emblazoned with a curious logo, Mann of Steel. He continued to hug his arms close to his chest, a modern- day Washington crossing the Delaware, even as two young people put down their clipboards and reached out to Tess, boosting her into the boat.

"Congratulations," said the male of the pair. "You just ruined a shot that we've been trying to get for three days."

Tess glanced around, taking in everything her back had failed to see. This usually quiet strip around Fort McHenry was ringed with boats. There was an outer periphery of police launches, set up to protect an inner circle, which included this boat and another nearby, with what appeared to be a mounted camera and another fleece jacketed man. There were people onshore, too, and some part of Tess's mind registered that this was odd, given that Fort McHenry didn't open its gates to the public until 9 a.m. Farther up the fort's grassy slopes, she could see large white trailers and vans, some of them with blue writing that she could just make out: Haddad's Rentals. She squeezed her ponytail and tried to wring some water from her T-shirt, but the standing man frowned, as if it were bad form to introduce water into a boat.

"The sun's up now," said the young woman who had helped Tess into the boat, her tone dire, as if this daily fact of life, the sun rising, was the most horrible thing imaginable. "We lost all the rose tones you wanted."

The doubly stern man threw his Natty Boh cap down in the boat, revealing a headful of brown curls, at which he literally tore. He was younger than Tess had realized, not much older than she, no more than thirty-five. "Three days," he said. "Three days of trying to get this shot and some stupid rower has to come along at the exact wrong moment—"

"Tess Monaghan," she said, offering a damp, sticky hand. He didn't take it. "And I'm sorry about the accident, but you almost killed me."

"No offense," said Natty Boh, "but that might have been cheaper for us in the long run."

The rest of the book has her sorting out the various threats faced by the film makers, who seem to have antagonised just about everyone in Baltimore with their TV film on the old steel industry. A brilliant depiction of the dynamics of film production and a page-turner of story. Recommended.
By the way, Natty Boh is a colloquial reference to National Bohemian, a beer brewed for many years in Baltimore but now a beer-like beverage extruded in North Carolina by the Miller company.
The lovely picture of Fort McHenry at dawn is from Flickr, by nature61.

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