The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service Recently Achieved

by Erskine Childers

Other authorsJohn O’Connor (Illustrator), E. F. Parker (Introduction)
Hardcover, 1971





Barre, Mass: Imprint Society, (1971). Limited Edition. One of 1950 numbered copies, signed by the artist, John O'Connor.


While on a sailing trip in the Baltic Sea, two young adventurers-turned-spies uncover a secret German plot to invade England. Written by Childers--who served in the Royal Navy during World War I--as a wake-up call to the British government to attend to its North Sea defenses, The Riddle of the Sands accomplished that task and has been considered a classic of espionage literature ever since, praised as much for its nautical action as for its suspenseful spycraft.

Media reviews

Flyt Forlag
Forfatter: Erskine Childers Boken beskriver to engelskmenns seilas i en knøttliten båt for vel 100 år siden. Området de seiler i er grunt og fullt av sandbanker, og to ganger i døgnet fylles og tømmes det av tidevannet. De gjør noen spennende oppdagelser om mulig invasjon av England... Boken har vært utgitt utallige ganger verden over og er også blitt filmatisert to ganger. På tross av at den ble skrevet for over hundre år siden, kan den leses som en moderne spenningsroman. Forfatteren og boken representerer hver for seg to meget interessante historier. Childers var ire, men kjempet for engelskmennene under Boerkrigen. Deretter ble han engasjert i IRA, der han drev med våpensmugling med sin 60 fot Colin Archer. Under første verdenskrig var han igjen å finne på britisk side. Boken fikk stor betydning for britenes forsvarstenkning. Denne utgaven inneholder en epilog av forfatteren som ikke har vært publisert på norsk tidligere. Boken er glimrende oversatt av Jon Winge.
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Apart from the political significance of the book, "The Riddle of the Sands" is fiction of a high quality. Its style and its permeating atmosphere of the sea suggest Conrad; and, like Conrad, the author takes us so thoroughly with him that our hearts beat with those of the perplexed voyagers, and we even share the smells and flavors of their cramped little yacht.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ari.joki
An adventure in early 20th century international politics, as seen from the sea level in a small sailing boat (I can't bring myself to call it a yacht, although I know it to be the customary appellation).
In reading The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers or 39 Steps by John Buchan, and many other works, I find it amazing and feel grateful how far we have come from the insular, hostile, and paranoid xenophobia of only a 100 or 60 years ago. Europe today is completely different in atmosphere than it was in those days.

Also, it is pleasant to enjoy writing where the author thinks we can maintain attention even if we are not hit on the forehead with a baseball bat every 3.2 minutes.

The side characters are a bit cardboardish, but the two protagonists are painted with delicious strokes of the pen.
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LibraryThing member dazzyj
One on level very boring, as little happens, certainly by modern spy thriller standards. But it is enjoyable enough once you relax into its stately rhythms and allow yourself to be drawn into a very specific world, namely sailing around the shallows of the German North Sea coast at the turn of the 20th century. The ultimate pay-off, however,is far too mild for my, perhaps too modern tastes (and is revealed in the cover blurb anyway).… (more)
LibraryThing member PhileasHannay
Childers seems to have had several agendas besides writing an entertaining adventure story: to write about messing about in small yachts, and to wake up England to the impending German threat. There were times, early in the book, where I wondered if I should continue. If I wasn't so interested in the genre partly inspired by this book I might not have.

The novel is rather slow through much of the first half, getting by, to the extent that it does, with some mild humour derived from the heroes' personality clash.

You could learn a few fundamental truths about how entertaining stories work by observing what went wrong here: the girl doesn't appear until half-way through, and then disappears for most of the rest of the story; the story is dependent on laboriously explained technicalities of tides, depths and geography, frequently resorting to 'look at the chart on page X' to explain what's going on; and the villains appear quite late in the story.

It's not all bad, though. The details of small yachting are interesting, up to a point; there's an exciting 'race against time while navigating in the dark' sequence which I liked a lot; and the scenes where the heroes and villains subtly try to sound each other out without letting on how much they know about each other are very well done, easily the highlights of the novel.
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LibraryThing member mlbelize
Considered to be the first of the modern spy/espionage thriller genre, this book set prior to World War I, was purported to have given the British Admiralty a wake-up call about the vulnerability of England should the Germans wage a surprise attack and to take action to prevent that from happening.

Davies, a young man with considerable sailing knowledge and love of the sea is convinced that while sailing near the German Frisian Islands, an attempt was made to kill him in order to stop Davies from charting the area. He sends a telegram to an old school friend, Carruthers, asking him to join him on a sail. Carruthers, who is also our narrator, is a pampered, egotistical young man working in the foreign office wondering what to do with his upcoming leave as all the important entertainments have already expired or moved on to other areas of the country. Thinking the invitation a chance to have a two week pleasure cruise, he hastily accepts, packs his sailing whites and races to the harbour to meet his friend. What he finds instead is a converted lifeboat and that the crew is to consist of himself and Davies. Thus the two young men set sail to the Baltic Sea and Frisian Islands to unravel the mystery. The friendship of the two young men grew as they learned to trust each other and work together in the hope of discovering the German’s secret before they were caught and arrested as spies. There is, of course, as required in all spy novels, a love interest who they also attempt to rescue. Although very mild according to modern day spy thrillers, this was still entertaining enough to keep my interest. I found all the nautical references hard to understand and a bit tiresome but overall this is a decent spy novel and can imagine that when first published in 1903 it created quite a sensation.
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LibraryThing member jintster
This novel, published in 1903, is of some literary and historical significance. It is generally regarded as the first spy novel establishing a template where the writer would produce verisimilitude by undertaking detailed research and setting out out the fruits of his labour in the book. More importantly, the novel was a significant propaganda tool for those in England who saw the rising Germany as a potential invader. The resulting naval arms race between the two countries was one of the causes of the First World War.

Unfortunately, I found the book a bit of a struggle after the first hundred pages. I've never got on very well with books set on the sea - naval jargon seems to just float over my head. The plot is very much dependent on the reader playing close attention to the navigation of the yacht sailed by the two heroes around the channels and sand banks of Friesland. To do so, one has the carefully check the maps provided at the beginning of the book regularly. Unfortunately my edition of the book had terrible reproductions of the maps which made them virtually impossible to follow.

When not at sea, I enjoyed the crisp narration and entertaining dialogue but being unable to properly understand the plot made reading the novel something of a chore.
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
I have always felt the draw of the sea, the mystery that it encompasses, the excitement, and the spirit of indivual adventure. Childers' book is the perfect example of this, and maintains a great pace despite dedicating a lot of time to technical discussions of tides and yachting. But that's also part of the fascination. Like the best 'fish out of water' stories, we follow Carruthers as he becomes an able yachtsman, whilst Davies, the expert, guides him; if we had had two Davies the story would have been lacking.

And what a story! A full ten years before war broke out in Europe, and here Childers warns of it. He wasn't alone amongst novelists of the time, but his arguments and reasoning are so well constructed that this simple espionage thriller becomes truly terrifying. Imagine the effect it would have had, if one had read it a century ago!
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LibraryThing member neurodrew
The Riddle of the Sands
Erskine Childers
February 28, 2011

A Folio Edition.
Written in 1903, at a time of tension between Britain and Germany. The story is a description of sailing journeys along Jutland and the Baltic, unraveling the mystery of suspicious activity of German spies and naval vessels, and ultimately discovering a plot to invade Britain using barges launched in secret from multiple small esturaries. The novel is a very good sailing yarn, written obviously by someone with great knowledge of small boat sailing. It is interesting that the author ended up hanged for carrying weapons during the Irish revolution.… (more)
LibraryThing member mmyoung
I admit to basically giving up on this book. My biggest problem with reading the book itself was that I found it boring, badly paced and intensely repetitive.

My larger criticism of the book is that Carruthers is provided with paltry motivations for joining with Davies and even weaker intellectual and emotional reasons for falling in with Davies' greater scheme. Much of Carruther's behaviour seemed to spring from a schoolboyish desire to be 'seen to be tough' and to 'not let the side down' leavened with a healthy lashing of unconscious homosocial fixation on Davies.

By the half way point of the book I realized that I no longer cared (if I ever had) what happened to any of the characters in the book.

I realize the important influence this book had on the development of the gritty/realistic spy/thriller but found it, on its own merit, near unreadable. Stripped of in historical importance I would have given up on it long before the midpoint of the story.
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LibraryThing member antiquary
A remarkable mix of Richard Hannay and Swallows and Amazons. A bored young Foreign Office clerk joins a former university friend who is sailing a small yacht (basically crewed only by himself) along the coasts of Denmark and Germany, investigating what ultimately turns out to be a German plan for a naval attack on Britain under the direction of the Kaiser himself --who is seen in this book (as in Rolfe's Hadrian VII) as a much more serious and capable leader than he turned out to be in the real World War I. The author was a clerk in the House of Commons, a British naval reserve officer in World War I, and then a leader of the Irish Republican Army who was shot by he Free Staters during the Irish Civil War.… (more)
LibraryThing member reading_fox
Meanders. Slow but otherwise interesting mostly sailing story with a little bit of espionage thrown in. Nowadays its probably of more interest fro its insights into 1900s life.

Two young chaps (ie in their mid to late 20s) set off in a cramped 7m "yacht" (ie dingy) to sail around the sands and bays of the north german coastline - as it then was. On the way they bump (not literally) inot a few characters, whom they seem to see more often than chance would allow. Eventually their suspiciens are raised, (and with the lure of a beautiful daughter) they make an effort to find out more.

All seems a bit stodgy. I'm unconvinced by either of the chaps as leading characters, nothign much really happens to them. There's a lot of tedious details about mudflats tidal sandbars and references to maps that I couldn'tbe bothered to look at. As an idea it was sort of impressive. I have no idea now, if Germany ever did have plans to invade england through the details specified, but it didn't seem an unreasonable proposition.

Of historic interest only really, but readable enough.
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LibraryThing member Figgles
Sailing classic! Carruthers, the narrator, depressed at being stuck in London whilst the social world of country house parties carries on without him accepts an invitation to go yachting with a an old University acquaintance. The clash between Carruthers' image of yachting (deck chairs, g&ts, snowy yachting trousers and caps, obsequious crew) and the reality of the small, grubby converted lifeboat that awaits him is hilarious! Then the story settles down to a tale of love and espionage and plenty of sailing in the tidal waters on the border of Germany and Holland. Love this book! Read up on the story of the author as well - just as dramatic!… (more)
LibraryThing member pierthinker
I read this as book more as a chore than anything else - a chance to read the father of modern spy thrillers. It is overlong and requires/assumes a knowledge of sailing few landlubbers will comprehend. The language and attitudes reflect the early twentieth century in which it was written that seem very outmoded to us now. There is a certain something about this, though. The technical sailing descriptions and talk do push us into the time and place and the suspenseful lack of action and lack of outright villainy do keep us guessing about who is doing what, when and to whom.… (more)
LibraryThing member SaturdayReadingGroup
A well written but, to my decidedly un-nautical eyes, a rather uneventful adventureless story. Whilst our dashing and stiff upper lipped heroes were vividly portrayed I found the villains of the piece blurring into one fiendish, Teutonically bearded mass. The plot does seem to rest on one wildly implausible coincidence and sadly, having finished the book a week ago, the denouement escapes my recall. I expected a little more daring do and a little less kedging the erm... sou'westly bowsprit?… (more)
LibraryThing member janerawoof
Got nearly halfway and did not finish. Although this is a classic among spy novels, they have come a long way. Interesting for historical reasons only. Very slow-moving; I felt like I was trying to walk through molasses.
LibraryThing member jacoombs
Grandfather of all spy novels gets off to a slow start but leads to compelling finish. A must for mariners.
LibraryThing member YogiABB
You know trying to pick out a book to read from the ocean that is available is tough. I heard about Erskine Childer's "The Riddle of the Sands" published in 1903 and I had to read it. The thing that piqued my interest is that it has been considered the first English spy novel and was an influence on Ian Fleming, John Le Carre, and Ken Follett. Also the book was very influential on the British public because he described the the vulnerability of Great Britain by an attack from Britain.. The thing that hooked it for me was that the author was executed by an Irish firing squad in 1922 for possession of a firearm in violation of martial law during Irish Civil War. It's all terribly complex and I refer you to Erskine Childer's Wikipedia page for reference.

The book itself is marvelous. It is about two young guys in a sailing craft of shallow draft who while sailing along the German North Sea coast get more and more suspicious of what they see. The book is full of sailing references and chart entries, tides, currents, canals and such and it is easy to get lost but hang with it. The atmosphere and tension of the novel gets denser and darker as time goes on. The prose is dense and deep as I find books from the pre-television era are.

I found the book to be the perfect combination of story and back story. I give it four stars out of five.
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LibraryThing member mikethepsych
A ripping yarn decribing a sailing holiday with a stumble into Germany's preparation for the invasion of Britain, pre-WW I.
Publication may have stimulated enhancement of British naval defences with development of Rosyth, Fife as a North Sea naval base.
The tale is superceded only by the author's adventurous life culminating in his execution by the Provisional Irish Government of the day for possession of a pistol given him by Michael Collins the Irish Nationalist!
First read when I was in Grade 1 Grammer School (about 12 yo) by my whole class under the beady eye of The Reverend Dickie Lloyd, our English teacher and ex-military padre.
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LibraryThing member john257hopper
This novel, published in 1902, is the most well known of a genre of spy fiction produced during the period of tension between Britain and Germany leading up to the First World War, when there were numerous exaggerated (though not wholly unfounded) fears of German spies infiltrating Britain and making it vulnerable to a German invasion. A basis for an exciting story, but unfortunately, in practice it left me cold and indeed I found it very dull. The two central English characters were uninteresting and I found them virtually interchangeable. The author's statement at the end about the perceived danger of German invasion is more interesting from a historical viewpoint. My kindle version came with some slightly odd illustrations of marginal relevance.… (more)
LibraryThing member debs4jc
This classic adventure story with a strong nautical aspect was good in the parts where they were spying on the bad guys, but a lot of it is full of technical details about sailing and geography. It was hard for me to get into and follow that aspect of it so this was a struggle for me to read at times. It got more interesting when a love interest and a direct conflict with the villian occured toward the end of the book but it takes a lot of patience to get to that part.… (more)
LibraryThing member tmph
... reading due to an odd reference from "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." Ponderously British.
LibraryThing member untraveller
The "first modern spy novel', the book was an interesting description of the north German coast. Much of the detail was hard to follow, but the conclusion became more and more obvious as the book progressed. An interesting book. Read April 2015.
LibraryThing member leslie.98
A lot of technical details about currents, tides and sailing. Best for people familiar with the Friesland area and/or sailing. The espionage aspects were ground-breaking in their realism when first published in 1903 but a bit dated now.
LibraryThing member Garrison0550
I'm not quite sure what made me read this book, it's not really a genre I prefer. What is odd is that the entire time I was reading it I knew I should have been bored to tears, but somehow I wasn't - I just kept reading. I really don't know if I would recommend this book or not. Probably not?
LibraryThing member raizel
I remember the story seemed slow without a lot of action, but significant. The foreword about Erskine Childers' life and death was more interesting: Childers was an Englishman who supported independence for Ireland and was executed by the Irish.

A quote:
"But I did know something of Germany... I described her marvellous awakening in the last generation under the strength and wisdom of her rulers; her intense patriotic ardour; her seething industrial activity, and, most potent of all, the forces that are moulding modern Europe, her dream of a colonial empire, entailing her transformation from a land-power to a sea-power."… (more)
LibraryThing member Stevil2001
I read this book while travelling to the Eaton Collection to read science fiction from 1890-1910 during with future war/revolution. This turned out to be something of a coincidence, as The Riddle of the Sands is pretty much a member of the same genre-- except that it's not science fiction. It's about a planned German invasion of Britain, but the invasion is thwarted during the trial stages, meaning there's no counterfactual or future history proposed. Yet the book is clearly responding to the same concerns that drive contemporary science fiction novels like The Three Days' Terror and The Stolen Submarine: Britain's supremacy is under threat, but Your Humble Author knows how to rectify that, both in reality (some policy changes) and in fiction (plucky amateurism, which is the supreme skill of the fin-de-siècle Englishman).

If ever you wanted to know how difficult yachting in sandy waters was, this is the book for you. I mean that both facetiously and seriously: I never even thought about it before, but Childers really makes you the reader feel as though you're lost in an unnavigable fog. Hard going sometimes, but fun, and worth it. (The film adaptation is decent, too, though I think my wife mostly liked it for Michael York in tight trousers.)
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Local notes

Reprints the 1903 novel some call the first modern espionage novel.


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