Why are there so few novels about rowing? I really do not know. Maybe it is because most authors do not know enough about our sport to even allow a small part of their novels to be about a rower, a regatta, or a boat race. Of course, there are some novels and short stories which have rowing in them, and a few have been mentioned earlier on HTBS, fiction stories by Eric Linklater, Jeffrey Archer, Rudie Lehmann, David Winser, and Robert Swartwout. A novella, which is more or less all about rowing, was written by the Dutch author H. M. van den Brink, Over het water (1998; English translation by Paul Vincent On the Water, 2001); eventually there will be an entry about this brilliant little book here on HTBS.
Swartwout and Winser, who both had participated in the Boat Race, Swartwout in 1930, and Winser in 1935, 1936, and 1937, wrote crime stories with rowing. It is actually in this literary genre we do find some rowing.
What kind of weapon is then used in a ‘rowing crime story’? Well, an oar, of course. An oar is a deadly weapon in for example Patricia Highsmith’s famous novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), where the utterly disturbed swindler Tom Ripley whacks his acquaintance Dickie Greenlef over the head with an oar when they are out boating. Now, mind you, they are not out in a racing shell or even a rowing dinghy, but a motor launch.
However, in Carola Dunn’s Dead in the Water (1998), the female amateur sleuth Daisy Dalrymple is at the 1923 Henley Royal Regatta to cover the races for an American magazine. Dalrymple suddenly finds herself in the middle of a murder case when Basil DeLancey, the boorish and unsympathetic stroke in the eight and coxless four of the fictional Oxford college, Ambrose, suddenly dies. Just after the start in the Visitors’ Cup, DeLancey stops rowing, clutches his head, vomits in the water, wobbles in the boat and falls into the river – dead. His collapse and passing are due to an earlier blow to his head with an oar.
Again, in another crime story, The River Killings (2006), by Merry Jones, the oar is used to try to murder a rower, the main character, Zoe Hayes. Unlike Dunn’s Dalrymple, Hayes is not an amateur sleuth, though both Dalrymple and Hayes have detectives as boyfriends. Hayes is a novice rower at Humberton Barge, a fictional rowing club at Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. When she is out practicing an evening on the river with her best friend, Susan Cummings, one of Susan’s sculls get caught in something floating in the water – it is a woman’s dress. Their double scull capsizes, and Hayes and Cummings end up in the water. There they make the cruel discovery that they are surrounded by nineteen dead bodies, all Asian women. These poor women have fallen victim of human trafficking.
In Baltimore Blues (1997) Laura Lippman’s character Tess Monagham, a member of the Baltimore Rowing Club, had put herself in a bad situation after she had promised to snoop around to help her fellow club member and friend, “Rock” Paxton, who is a suspect in a murder case. She managed to get away from the killer by giving him three good whacks with an oar inside the boat house, whereupon she threw herself in the river to escape being shot.
Rowing is not a major theme in Baltimore Blues, nor is it in Murder on the Ballarat Train (1991) by crime writer Kerry Greenwood, whose Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher is another lady detective solving mysteries and murders in 1920s Australia. For those who know their Olympic rowing history, the book title gives a rowing connotation as the 1956 Olympic rowing regatta was held on Lake Wendouree in the suburbs of the town of Ballarat. On board the train to Ballarat, where a hideous murder has been committed, is Phryne Fisher and, amongst the other passengers, a rowing team from Melbourne University. Phryne Fisher starts a sexual relationship with one of the young oarsmen in the boat, Lindsay Herbert. Greenwood’s description of their sexual encounters is an embarrassing read.
If her book had been published two years later, in 1993, I am sure her book would have been on the first short-list of one of the world’s most unwanted literary awards: The Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which is an annual prize for the novel with the worst description of the sexual act. It was established in 1993 by the literary critic Rhoda Koenig and Evelyn Waugh’s son, Auberon Waugh, then the editor of the British magazine, Literary Review. The literary magazine is still handing out this award every year to a displeased recipient.
Just as Swartwout and Winser have an Oxbridge ‘boat race theme’ in their stories, so has Victoria Blake in her Cutting Blades (2005). Blake’s novel begins with Harry Cameron, the very talented Oxford stroke, who suddenly goes missing some weeks before the Boat Race. Harry is loyal to the crew, but he is also devoted to his twin brother, Dave, who constantly gets himself into trouble. The Oxford coach hires Sam Falconer, a female private investigator, to try to find Harry. A side-line in Blake’s story is that Sam’s father, an ex-SAS soldier who everyone thought was dead, precipitously shows up. He is chased by some British government agents who are trying to kill him before he reveals some shady stuff that he and some other SAS soldiers were ordered to do during the conflict in Northern Ireland. There is also a third parallel story in this novel, when Sam’s nasty neighbour is hiring her for protection. Too many plots? No, not really. I think that Blake handles it very well up to a certain point.
In the beginning, I could not put the book down. However, like some rowing races, it starts out superbly well, but with the last 500 metres to go, say with one fourth left of this well-written book, it just runs right into the wall. There is no more power to add, and the novel only just slides across the finish line with a totally wiped-out Victoria Blake, barely holding on to the sculls. It is sad, really…
I find it odd that it seems to be only women writing crime stories with rowing nowadays. Writing this little essay, I was hoping to find a ‘rowing story’ by Agatha Cristie, but her short story “The Regatta Mystery” (1939) is not about rowing, it only hints at a yachting regatta. Not even Dorothy L. Sayers allows Lord Peter Wimsey to solve a rowing mystery, nor does Edmund Crispin’s Oxford don, Cervase Fen. I am desperately trying to remember which episode of Inspector Morse had scenes at one of the Oxford colleges’ boathouses, but I am not sure if these scenes are only in the tv-series and not in Colin Dexter’s novels about Morse. Is there anyone who knows?