Death on the Water

Death on the WaterGöran R Buckhorn writes:

While many readers of HTBS certainly agree with me that the 1987 Oxford Mutiny, which Chris Dodd wrote about on Tuesday on HTBS, is an interesting event in the rich history of rowing, I would have loved to read a ‘Boat Race Mystery’ from the pen of Chris Dodd. Not that he would be the first writer to tell a story of death in the wake of the race between Oxford and Cambridge, mind you. I have written about some short stories and crime novels with the Boat Race as a theme before on HTBS, but hopefully you don’t mind if I do it again.

R.E. Swartwout
R.E. Swartwout

In 1933, R.E. [Robert Egerton] Swartwout published The Boat Race Murder. He knew something of the Boat Race as he had coxed the Cambridge crew to victory three years earlier, in the 1930 Boat Race. Swartwout, who was born in New York City in 1905, learned to row and cox at Middlesex School in Concord, New Hampshire, before he was admitted to First Trinity, Cambridge, probably in 1925 or 1926. He published light verse in the student magazine The Granta, and some of the poems he collected in the book Rhymes of the River, which came out in spring of 1927. If any rowers are acquainted with his name today, it is probably because of his Rhymes of the River, which includes rowing poems, among them one about the famous contemporary coach, Steve Fairbairn.

Swartwout being a cox writing a novel about the Boat Race, it is easy to assume that he picked up real-life characters from around the boathouse or used characteristics from members of the crews that he used in his story.

swartwoutboatcoverBeing 5′ 6″ (1.7 m) and weighing 105 lb (48 kg), and allowing himself some self-mockery, this is how Swartwout presents the cox in his novel on page one:

‘Cox, you little blighter!’ shouted the coach, when the launch came alongside. ‘Didn’t’ you hear me say “easy”?’

 The cox, looking like a wretched little rat huddled up in his thick blazer and scarf, shook his head.

 The stroke, a slim, fair-haired young man, glared at him as he adjusted his scarf. ‘Listen to what he says, you beastly little pip-squeak!’ he hissed.

According to the Wikipedia entry about Swartwout, ‘he died in 1951 of esophageal cancer complicated by pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 45’.

Swartwout’s novel has been re-printed, and can easily be obtained here.

Seven years after Swartwout published The Boat Race Murder, in 1940, David Winser, a member of the Oxford crews in 1935, 1936 and 1937, published a short story with the same title. In Winser’s “The Boat Race Murder”, the narrator of the story is the Oxford cox; and the ending of the story might come as a surprise to many readers.

David Winser
David Winser

Winser, born in 1915, was educated at Winchester College where he proved to be a good marksman and oar. But he was not only a brilliant sportsman at Winchester, Winster was also a bright pupil. He received the King’s Gold Medal for Latin Verse and earned a scholarship to Oxford. At Oxford, he won the Newdigate Prize for modern verse for “Rain” in 1936. The same year he took his degree at Oxford, he earned a Commonwealth Scholarship to Yale University. At Yale, he studied medicine. Back in London, Winser did his clinical training at Charing Cross Hospital, while in his spare time he wrote some novels in a hospital setting. David was a stretcher-bearer in the beginning of the war before he became a Medical Officer in the 48th Royal Marine Commando. There Winser was awarded an M.C. for gallantry. He was killed in 1944 at the Battle for Walcheren in the Netherlands where he was taking care of wounded soldiers.

“The Boat Race Murder” by David Winser is to be found in a couple of mystery anthologies, or read it for free here.

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. This is what I wrote earlier about Blake’s Cutting Blades:

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…

ArcherThe famous, and twice desecrated, British author Jeffrey Archer has penned one short story “Dougie Mortimer’s Right Arm”, which is close to being regarded as a ‘crime story’, which I have brought up in an earlier HTBS entry. Read it here (with a link to read the story).

There exist other novels and short stories with rowing, and maybe other “Boat Race mysteries” (if you do know of other Boat Race stories, please contact HTBS). Here is another HTBS blog post about rowing crime stories: “Murder in the Boat”.

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