A Good Rowing Yarn

    Body of Water is grounded firmly in Cambridge and Boston, with Irish cops who drink Jameson’s and Harvard students who scarf down burgers and fries at Charlie’s Kitchen.
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    Are you watching The Princess Bride again?” I say to my brother with disapproval in my voice. “Take it easy, Doc,” I think to myself myself, since I’ve feasted on the inanity of The Hangover more times than I care to admit. I will confess to many viewings of The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars movies. I don’t like to re-read many books, however. Some genres invite re-reading. Good fiction rewards it. I love mysteries, but by and large they are a one-time event. Once you know whodunnit, they lose their sparkle.

    I was a bit conflicted when Dan Boyne’s mystery Body of Water came out in hardback. I had read its serialized version eagerly online. I’d even reviewed it for this publication back in 2020. I had enjoyed it back then, so I picked it up and plunged in. 

    “Big Ed” Masterson, a former Harvard coach, is out for his daily row on the Charles, a pursuit that, as we might expect, is much more than simply getting some exercise. “Rowing was his primary obsession in life, and he was compulsive about it.” The 55-year-old is practicing for the Head of the Charles when he hits something big, a speed bump that turns out to be a dead body. Looking down but not stopping, he realizes that it is a coxswain with whom he had had a nasty exchange that led to his being fired. 

    Boyne’s descriptions of sculling—both the physical and mental effort the sport entails—are spot on. This is no surprise. For 37 years, Boyne has been the sculling coach at Harvard/Radcliffe’s Weld boathouse. His cerebral approach to the sport contrasts with that of many of the “Just Do It” types. Boyne has written extensively about rowing and sculling, from a biography of Philadelphia’s famous Kelly family, to recounting the struggle to boat the first women’s U.S. National Team eight in 1975 in The Red Rose Crew, to The Seven Seat, a thinly veiled memoir of rowing his freshman year at Trinity College. This is his first rowing fiction, and like a writer he greatly admires, Robert Louis Stevenson, he has chosen to write a mystery, believing that “all good stories are mysteries.”

    Someday, when there’s a great deal more rowing fiction, I expect that there will be a subgenre of “getting even with the coxswain.” Let’s hope that they don’t all get bumped off and end up floating in the Charles River. As in all good police procedurals, Boyne weaves together several possible suspects. Even though I had read the earlier version of the story, I was thoroughly absorbed with this new and expanded version. You will turn the pages right till the end. It’s a good yarn.

    When I have read a book before and know how it turns out, I slow down and pay attention to the author’s craft. What does the author see? How are things described? In Body of Water, I delighted in Boyne’s figures of speech. Masterson is on the Charles and observes that “rush hour had already started at 7 a.m., and people were scrambling into the city from the suburbs like a swarm of invasive beetles.” 

    Body of Water is grounded firmly in Cambridge and Boston, with Irish cops who drink Jameson’s and Harvard students who scarf down burgers and fries at Charlie’s Kitchen. Boyne knows his neighborhood. At times his local knowledge is a bit over the top—his directions are as detailed as a GPS. For me, also a denizen of the Boston area, the writing rings true; the characters are not stereotypes. I’d be curious to know how someone from the West Coast experiences the book.

    Dare I say it would be a good beach read? Summer is upon us, and lighter fiction comes to mind. Pick up a copy. As a rower, you’ll enjoy the mystery and the descriptions of sculling. Case closed, Big Ed returns to what he loves most. “Without thinking, Masterson began his warm-up routine as someone in a rowboat might, beginning with short strokes using his arms and back, then slowly adding more and more length by using the sliding seat…Soon he was enjoying the magical pleasure of moving across water, and every muscle in his body seemed to take delight in the simple act.” 

    Feel like you are being rushed? Slow your slide and read Body of Water this summer.

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