#311: The Boat Race Murder (1933) by R.E. Swartwout

515ukrt9apl-_sx319_bo1204203200_I have never quite understood the preoccupation with the Oxford v. Cambridge: Dawn of Justice boat race; it reeks of a class consciousness that belongs in an older, less enlightened time and should, therefore, be a perfect match for my beloved GAD.  And so here we are, with Swartwout coxing the 1930 Cambridge crew to victory and so having an insider’s eye that should provide plenty of contemporary interest.  And a locked bathroom with a dead body in it, too, the key found on the floor inside once the door is broken in…and this after a discussion about detective fiction and how to go about committing a baffling murder that name-checks Freeman Wills Crofts.  Sounds good, right?  Well, it isn’t, for quite a lot of reasons.  Let’s attempt to explain them.

Firstly, that class consciousness.  I know this is a pervading theme in GAD, but it’s not something that usually intrudes upon my enjoyment.  The Cambridge University rowing eight are a bunch of interchangeable braying, brash idiots who bicker and call each other names, the policeman assigned the case is a public school-educated war chum of the coach…almost everyone else is a forelock-tugging lackey or semi-literate grouch who resents their obvious betters and says things like “Shockin’ business! ‘Ooder thought it!” but whose base nature also makes them conveniently apodictic once plied with a couple of pints.

The difficulty comes when Swartwout is unable to decide whether to castigate the celebration of such classism or to simply revel in it.  On one hand there’s a sly elbow at the coroner’s wearying verbosity when opening the inquest, yet the over-reaction of a tabloid press printing “hysterical onslaughts on the whole university and public school system” implies the latter.  Swartwout also takes the time to upbraid his detective for walking on the grass when visiting a Cambridge college, and is incapable of giving us someone not educated at public school who isn’t a moron or — when he really puts some effort in — a surly moron.  And there’s more dialogue of this type than I’m strictly comfortable with simply putting down to tone-deaf bygone attitudes:

“Young and physically fit men don’t kill themselves just because they’ve had a row with a rowing-coach!  I’ve read of a Dago who shot himself because he was left out of a football team, but Englishmen don’t do that sort of thing.”

Secondly, our detective, Angus MacNair, is bland and dull and boring and undistinguished, only making any kind of impression when he shares a key clue with a suspect and then wonders after the fact whether perhaps he, the policeman in charge of the case, ought maybe not to’ve done that…but is puffed full of indignation at the idiocy of a colleague (previously taken to be a tip-top man) who shares legitimate relevant information with another professional in a way that is entirely justified.  Equally McNair gets a lot of startlingly undisciplined speech such as:

“This book, amongst several others, had been recently borrowed from Brown’s library, and several of them read it.  At any rate, Lloyd certainly did.  I can’t be sure of the others.  I am more inclined to believe he saw to it that none of the others read it.”

Holy shit, man, pick a lane!

Additionally, there’s the presentation of the crime.  Swartwout wants it to be a mystery how in any way the murder could have been committed yet the door locked on the inside…but within two pages of the police pondering this we’re given any number of possible explanations of how this could have been achieved (all false, of course, but in no way unachievable).  So it doesn’t qualify as a locked room problem, and it’s not as if he dreamt up a particularly ingenious method — I thought of it as soon as the problem was presented — or an especially ingenious piece of clewing — the guilty party confesses all come the end — to justify a clever piece of detection of canny ratiocination.  It’s one of the most tin-pot locked rooms I’ve yet encountered, and that’s saying something.

In fact, on the subject of that clewing, even the clewing is shit.  In order for the police — the sole interesting note in the entire book is their repeatedly being called ‘Roberts’, which I’ve not seen before and rather liked — to come to any conclusion at all, the guilty party leaves behind a trail of clues so goddamned stupid and inexplicable that he might as well have just killed the victim, stood there singing a song until everyone turned up, immediately confessed, and explained everything as soon as the police turned up.  Because these are not clever clues, they are clumsy (a coded message, which would take so long to write and read that you’d probably outlive your victim while planning their murder) and left in the most hilariously stupid places (pencilled in the back of a book, and then rubbed out with insufficient rigour to be properly obliterated) that it just…I can’t even be bothered.  You get the idea.  It’s awful.

And don’t even get me started on the man who, about to divulge the name of the guilty person, is then shot and prevented from doing so.  This is Nineteen Thirty-Three!  This book is a contemporary of Lord Edgware Dies, The Hog’s Back Mystery, The Bowstring Murders, Murder Must Advertise, and about as representative of the age in which it appeared as the sporting event that inspired it is of the society that continues to perpetuate its importance.  Upon which devastating barb I retire from this whole sorry experience.

star filledstarsstarsstarsstars

I could probably submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block , but I’ve accidentally deleted my card and don’t have the patience to go through my posts so far this year and work out what I’ve completed and what I haven’t.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, however, this links to last week’s The D.A. Holds a Candle because at first glance the death under investigation could equally be accident as much as murder.

31 thoughts on “#311: The Boat Race Murder (1933) by R.E. Swartwout

  1. I tried to prepare you last week and cushion the crashing disappointment that would follow your read. So I’m not at all surprised that you rated the book only one star. I knew you would end up disliking it. It was just a question how much you would dislike or hate it. Now we know.

    Yes, Santosh, the story uses the solution of The Rasp as a false solution. Or a partially correct solution. My memory is a bit foggy on that point, but it completely spoils The Rasp either way.


    • Still, at least it’s bad all the way through – – something that fails on every level is somehow more bearable than something 20% good that is then a complete waste everywhere else. It would have been fine if written in 1911, say, but it’s under-par for something this late in the game.

      Got another modern-ish locked room for you on Saturday, by the way, and one I really rather enjoyed. Hopefully it’s one you haven’t yet encountered, though I appreciate that’s rather unlikely…


    • Thankfully there’s nothing in this that even feels like a wasted idea in a poor book…it’s just poor all the way through. In a way I “enjoy” this sort of poor book more, so the experience of reading it was marked more by a sinking sense of disinterest rather than any paticular irritation or hopelessness.

      As to The Rasp…Macdonald and I are slowly improving our relationship book by book; maybe I’ll get to it in due course, but there are plenty of other books — and several other Philip Macdonald books — I want to read before that one is even in the top half of Mount TBR. Who knows, maybe I’ll love it should its time ever come…


      • As to The Rasp…MacDonald and I are slowly improving our relationship book by book;

        I sort of liked MURDER GONE MAD even though I generally detest serial killer stories. Perhaps I should try another of his books?


        • Murder Gone Mad was, for me, a distinct improvement on X vs. Rex, so there’s definite range in appreciation of MacDonald. Perhaps you should try another of his books, but don’t let me boss you around…!


  2. I suspect some people watch the boat race solely in the hope that one – or both – of the boats will spectacularly sink. As seems to have happened, metaphorically, here. Still, quite nice not to add yet another book to the piles of those I will never have time to read unless I can get my philosopher’s stone to work (yes, I’ve tried turning it off and then on again).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I bought this book a few years ago, read the first ten pages and thought it absolutely dull. What a drip Angus is! Ugh. Closed it and never went back. And now I never will give it a second try. Thanks for proving my highly developed instincts to be correct. Your post is an often hilarious condemnation of this book. Made me grin and chuckle a lot. And into the “To Be Sold” box goes this one.

    Speaking of contemporary locked rooms and impossible crime mystery novels. Anyone know of TEN DEAD COMEDIANS? It was just published a few months ago and I came across it quite by accident while looking for another book at my local Banes & Noble. A very American, very vulgar and sometimes clever send-up of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Even comes with a floor plan! How retro Golden Age can you get? Review coming soon…


    • It’s always nice to be proved right, isn’t it? It’s been a while since I was able to trust myself enough to pack a book in that early — the most recent possibly being There Came Both Mist and Snow by Michael Innes, the impossible shooting problem of which I was hoping would entice me through his dread prose. Three pages in I suspected I was making a terrible mistake…18 pages in I knew it for a fact…but I couldn’t actually give up on the book until maybe 50 or 60 pages (followed by liberal skipping ahead to realise the impossible shooting weasn;t that interesting anyway). I need to get better at this…!

      I hadn’t heard of Ten Dead Comedians, no, but I’ve check it out and it sounds intriguing to say the least. I’ve marked down for a TBB slot, and I look forward to your thoughts. Many thanks for raising it.


  4. To tell the truth. the title of this book would likely have put me off anyway as I’m another whose eyes start to glaze over at any mention of the boat race. That aside, it sounds like a dreadfully written book anyway. I’ll never read this and thanks for the advance warning – a highly entertaining and amusing warning at that.


    • The strangest thing about this is that there’s really nothing about it that gives any sense of why it was written: the trick is old hat, the characters are undistinguished, there’s not especially boat-y about the setup or the execution…it could be written in a thousand other situations and make just as much sense (and be just as bad). Seems like someone taking the ‘write what you know’ adage at a bizarre and pointless face value — “I was in the boat race, I’ll write about the boat race!”. The mind boggles.


  5. I have since obtained Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente and it is the next book to be read by me. I will review it at Goodreads.


  6. It’s got a LOT of characters who sort of fly in and out at the beginning, but it looks like an easy read. I’m just so busy, so it’ll probably not really get read until the Thanksgiving holiday. But I will say this, Santosh: my cat ate the first page . . . judge from that what you will!


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