Death on the Charles

Eliot Bridge over the Charles River – a crime scene in Daniel J. Boyne’s new book, Body of Water. Photo: Anthony-22/Wikipedia

1 May 2023

By Göran R Buckhorn

Göran Buckhorn reads a new book by Daniel J. Boyne where he kills off an unsympathetic coxswain – it is the author’s debut crime novel called Body of Water.

By now, Daniel J. Boyne has shown us that he has many strings in his literary bow. In 2000, his how-to-scull book Essential Sculling: An Introduction to Basic Strokes, Equipment, Boat Handling, Technique, and Power came out, and the same year possibly his most famous book hit the book shops, The Red Rose Crew: A True Story of Women, Winning, and the Water. The Red Rose Crew is about a group of American women coached by Harry Parker, and their path to the 1975 World Rowing Championships. Then came Kelly: A Father, A Son, An America Quest (2012), a rowing biography of the great American Olympic sculler John “Jack” Kelly, Sr., and his son, “Kell”. Boyne’s fourth book, The Seven Seat: A True Story of Rowing, Redemption, and Revenge (2019) is a work he himself called “creative non-fiction” on how he signed up for “crew” as a freshman at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Body of Water is out today, 1 May.

And, today 1 May, Daniel Boyne’s next book is out, Body of Water, a rowing crime story. Looking back at his five books on rowing, this seems to be a natural progression of literature coming out of Boyne’s computer: a how-to book, a rowing history book, a rowing biography, a fact/fiction memoir – and a crime novel. Body of Water, like the rest of Boyne’s books, is published by Lyons Press in Connecticut.

Before taking a look at Body of Water, let us see what the sport of rowing has given us in detective/crime/thriller novels.

There are some novels about rowing, and a few rowing novels where a crime is committed. Of course, there are a couple where the deadly weapon of choice is an oar. In Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), the utterly disturbed swindler Tom Ripley whacks his acquaintance Dickie Greenleaf over the head with an oar when they are out boating. Though, they are not out in a racing shell or even in a rowing dinghy, but a motor launch. Author Carola Dunn kills off the unsympathetic Basil DeLancey, stroke of the fictional Oxford college Ambrose’s eight and coxless four at the 1923 Henley Royal Regatta, in her Dead in the Water (1999) – and the murder weapon is an oar.

In The River Killings (2006) by Merry Jones, the oar is used to try to murder a rower, the main character, Zoe Hayes, a novice rower at Humberton Barge, a fictional rowing club at Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. In Baltimore Blues (1997) Laura Lippman’s character Tess Monagham, a member of the Baltimore Rowing Club, managed to get away from the killer by giving him three good wallops 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 a lady detective solving mysteries and murders in 1920s Australia. A hideous murder has been committed on the train to Ballarat, where, amongst the passengers is Phryne Fisher and members of a rowing crew from Melbourne University. Fisher starts a sexual relationship with one of the young oarsmen. Greenwood’s description of their sexual encounters is an embarrassing read.

In Cutting Blades (2005) by Victoria Blake, Harry Cameron, the very talented Oxford stroke, 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 find Harry.

Two more murder stories must be mentioned here only for the reason that the authors, like Boyne, were involved in rowing.

Robert Egerton (known as “R.E.”) Swartwout coxed the winning Cambridge crew in the 1930 Boat Race. Swartwout had rowed and coxed at his American school, Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, before he was admitted to Trinity, Cambridge, probably in the mid-1920s. He only coxed Cambridge against Oxford on the Thames once. Nevertheless, Swartwout did use his knowledge about the Boat Race in his novel The Boat Race Murder (1933).

David Winser, of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, who rowed for the Dark Blues in the Boat Races in 1935, 1936 and 1937 (Oxford won the 1937 race), also called his work “The Boat Race Murder,” a short story which was published in 1940. For those interested in Winser’s “The Boat Race Murder” they will be able to read it in the rowing anthology The Greatest Rowing Stories Ever Told, which will be out in October this year.

Crime writer Daniel J. Boyne

Now to Body of Water. The main stage in Dan Boyne’s Body of Water is the Charles River in Boston, and the main characters are never many steps away from the Charles. The story starts with Ed Masterson, a former coach at Harvard, who is out sculling on the Charles River. Boyne is doing a tremendously good job at describing Masterson’s work-out on the river. One can tell it is a sculling coach who is holding the author’s pen. While out on the water, Masterson finds a body floating. To his horror he recognises the body is that of ex-coxswain, Finley Sparks, whom Masterson coached at Harvard. It was Finley’s father, the stinking rich Sheldon Sparks who pressured Harvard to sack Masterson after an incident Masterson had with Finley. Sparks Senior, who once rowed for Harry Parker, has a big influence due to his large donations to the Harvard rowing program.

Is Finley Sparks’s death murder or suicide? As the entire Charles River and the DCR (Department of Conservation & Recreation) parkland is considered state police territory, it will be state trooper Sean Delaney’s job to figure out what happened. Like other great fiction detectives, Delaney has a side-kick, and his “Watson” is state trooper Marshall McDonald, known as “Marsh”, whom Delaney most of the time finds annoying to a fault. To Delaney’s aid is also chief coroner Sue Chason, a woman with a sharp intellect and a sharp tongue who rowed bow at the elite Saint Paul’s School’s first eight and can give him an insight of the noble art of rowing – and acts as his bed companion.

In the menagerie of suspects who maybe wanted to harm Finley Sparks, who was not well-liked by his old crew, we find Brant Stillman and Kyle Higgins, former stern pair in the Harvard eight Sparks coxed. They have a grudge against Sparks since he stole company secrets from the video game company the three men formed after college. Did Bob Rousseau, Chief of Police at Harvard, have anything to do with Finley’s death?  Then we have Athena Sparks, Finley’s flirty, pregnant stepmother, who is the former girlfriend of ex-Harvard coach Ed Masterson. Despite that Masterson was the one who found Finley’s body in the Charles, even he is a suspect in the death of Finley. There are also some other suspicious characters, who are, well, suspicious – among them Finley’s own father, Sheldon, who is strutting around in his tailored Brooks Brothers suits barking orders to everyone only for the reason that he belongs to a New England white, rich and privileged family.

And there are other crimes to solve for Detective Delaney in Body of Water. Who is the flasher who, standing on the river bank, exposes himself to female rowers when they are out on the Charles? Who stole oars at the Head of the Charles Regatta? Are they the murder weapons? (I’m sorry, I just had to write that…).

In Boyne’s debut detective novel, he steers the readers through the story with a confident hand on the tiller. He drops famous names of both real and fictional persons in his book. Did you know for example that Harvard coach Harry Parker used to tee up golf balls on the Newell Boathouse dock and drive them across the river, aiming for the flock of Canadian geese that rested on the grassy bank? Or that the Harvard men’s boathouse was name after Marshall Newell, an All-American football player and oarsman who, at age 26, died a few years after he had graduated from Harvard?

Among the fictional characters from books and TV series that Boyne mentions are Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Robert B. Parker’s Boston private investigator Spenser, as in Spenser: For Hire. The latter is a nice nod to Parker, whom Boyne knew and mentions in an Afterword as the one who inspired him to write Body of Water.

Boyne has Sean Delaney and Sue Chason listening to Miles Davis on Spotify – any author who has his main characters to listening to Miles Davis, or jazz for that matter, has my warmest support. (Not every police inspector has to listen to classic music, mind you.)

Dan Boyne is to be congratulated for Body of Water, which is a smart and well-crafted debut novel in the crime genre.

Lastly, one character that I personally would like to know more about is Clancy Delaney, Sean’s grumpy father, an ex-cop who works in a convenience store. What is his story? I hope Boyne’s explains that in his next novel with Sean Delaney and Sue Chason. Because there is going to be a sequel, right Dan?

Tomorrow, HTBS will publish an interview with Dan Boyne – not to be missed!


  1. “An unsympathetic coxswain”? Why do people have to hate coxswains? Why do oarsmen not understand that everything we do is for their good?

  2. Correction: the Middlesex School is in Concord, Massachusetts, not Concord, New Hampshire. Otherwise, a great article!

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