Admit it--if you have ever rowed in a sweep boat, at some point you have wanted to do grievous harm to your coxswain...maybe even to the point of murder. That is the conceit of Dan Boyne's new rowing murder mystery, "Body of Water." The book opens with former Harvard coxswain Finley Sparks found floating in the Charles by his former coach, sculler Ed Masterson.
Starting with the body in the water (note Boyne's clever pun in the book title), Massachusetts State Police detective Sean Delaney is tasked with unravelling the mystery of Sparks' death. And it's a mystery for sure--his death at first appears to be the sad result of misadventure after he and a few former teammates from the Harvard 3V (or "Threev" in Harvard crew lingo) attempt a silly after hours prank on the Eliot Bridge, but the mystery deepens after coroner Sue Chasen determines in her autopsy that Sparks has not died of natural causes, but that he was murdered.
To be clear, Finley hasn't been offed in the context of coxing--he is now a tech bro, on the cusp of a successful career. And as Delaney begins to chase down clues, the possible suspects for Sparks' murder multiply chapter by chapter. First of all, there is Masterson himself, who butted heads with Sparks while coaching him at Harvard, and was ultimately fired from his coaching job after pressure from Finley's father, the imperious business magnate Sheldon Sparks, himself a former Harvard oarsman.
Also in the mix is Sheldon Sparks' new trophy wife, Athena Sparks, who seems to be more than meets the eye, and, coincidentally, has a past connection to Masterson, the sculler.
Then there are Sparks' former college teammates, Kyle Higgins and Brant Stillman who are introduced as "6'8" and 6'6", respectively." Sparks had been in business with Higgins and Stillman, but the relationship between the coxswain and his former oarsmen had soured, and Sparks left the combined business under a cloud. Suspects and motives abound!
"So Finley was also one of your business partners?" Delaney asked.
"He was," Stillman said, glancing over at Higgins. "Until we bought him out."
"More like pushed him out," Higgins grumbled, shaking his head. Despite a stylish man bun and a closely cropped beard, he didn't seem like a mellow guy. Minutes earlier, when they'd shaken hands, Delaney couldn't help but notice the power of younger man's grip and his sharp, judgmental gaze. Stillman was more congenial and clearly the salesman of the two.
"Why the buyout?" Delaney pressed.
"He wasn't pulling his weight," Higgins said. "I mean, he had great ideas, but he'd quickly get bored and pass off the grunt work to others."
"In other words, the two of you," Delaney clarified.
"Typical coxswain behavior," Higgins scoffed. "Totally annoying."
Aiding Delaney in trying to solve this mystery is Delaney's partner, Marshall McDonald, affectionately known as "Marsh." Not unkindly, Marsh serves as the book's token millennial, but is there to offer Delaney surprisingly useful assists here and there.
Also joining in the chase for clues is the coroner, Sue Chasen (herself a former rower at St. Paul's School), who adds a sharp intellect (and even sharper wit) to the conversation. Predictably, sparks fly (no pun intended) between Chasen and Delaney, and while neither of them would necessarily qualify as hard-boiled (they are both more over easy and fun than anything else, and not in a bad way at all--it keeps them from becoming cliches), their repartee keeps the tale lively.
Boyne, who is the author of both a techical rowing book, "Essential Sculling" and an eminent work of rowing history, "The Red Rose Crew," weaves together these seemingly disparate strains in this book, and we get sculling insights and a healthy dose of Boston history, both rowing-related and not.
As a former Boston rowing clubbie, this reviewer got more than a few chuckles out of Boyne's descriptions and anecdotes--it's all true. One hopes that non-natives will get all the jokes.
Boyne is a skillful writer, and he pulls off the trifecta of crime writing, local color, and rowing insights to great effect, without sliding too far into any one particular direction. In his afterword, Boyne credits the late Robert B. Parker, a prolific msytery writer (and, as it turns out, a near-neighbor of Boyne's in Cambridge) with helping him chart his path towards crime fiction; lessons well-learned.
So, whodunnit? We won't say here, but suffice it say that Boyne has crafted a nifty page turner that will easily fill a regatta weekend (or the time between two rows at a training camp, if you are a quick reader). And if you are coxswain, beware...people will remember your deeds (and misdeeds) long after you leave the tiller behind!