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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.)