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.
My larger criticism of the book is that Carruthers is provided with paltry motivations for joining with Davies and even weaker intellectual
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.
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!
In reading The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers or 39 Steps by John Buchan, and many
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
'I believe,' said Davies, 'that Dollmann did it off his own bat'
A charming book. Read to me originally my my mother, and listened to this past month while on my way back from dropping my oldest at school.
Erskine Childers’s novel was first published in 1903 and was set against the Anglo-German Great Naval Race, it has been widely regarded as the first modern spy story. It opens during the first week of September,
Carruthers has done some sailing previously and arrives expecting a pleasure cruise on a crewed yacht and so has naturally brought along proper yachting clothes. What he discovers is a cramped thirty-foot flat-bottomed boat, the Dulcibella. Davies admits that he can actually sail her alone, though finds life more pleasant with a companion.
Childers initially pokes fun at Carruthers’s early days aboard the Dulcibella but gradually as his seamanship improves so the reader is introduced to the intricacies of sailing a small vessel in tidal estuaries, amid shifting sand bars.By modern standards "The Riddle of the Sands" develops very slowly. The first third in fact seems to be mainly an account of in-shore sailing, with an odd storm to spice things up but through shared experiences the two young men's friendship grows.
One day, when they are confined to port due of fog, they are visited by a German barge captain who casually recounts how he saved Davies's life during a gale when the Dulcibella had run aground.Davies finally opens up about this incident to Carruthers and reveals that he got in to this perilous position whilst being guided by a more powerful yacht captained by an Englishman masquerading as a German. Davies believes that this was deliberate attempt on his life but why? As the two young men try to find out, so the action quickens.
As I stated at the beginning of this review this book was written against the backdrop of great a naval build up by both Britain and Germany so this book cannot be seen simply as a spy story. In fact despite its almost instant popularity this was the only novel that Childers ever wrote, instead he spent his career writing naval manuals. What Childers wanted to do was to bring the book’s warning message to a far wider audience, he believed that the British Government was either ignoring or reacting far too slowly to the threat of invasion that Germany posed. As Carruthers ominously says: “She grows, and strengthens, and waits.”
In this regard, "The Riddle of the Sands" may be viewed as an example of contemporary novels that imagined a great war in the near future. It is almost disconcerting, then, that Davies frequently expresses his admiration for the Germans as a people and even praises the kaiser. Yet despite this by the end, both he and Carruthers will risk their lives to alert the Admiralty to a realistic threat.
As I stated earlier this is a slow burner by modern standards but has many of the ingredients found in modern spy stories, a daring journey by night, having to decipher a few enigmatic clues, unmask a traitor and rescue a beautiful young woman all whilst trying to shake off enemy agents, all written at a time when hardened professionals are no match for plucky amateurs. Even today this book still has an immense influence on the genre and for that reason alone deserves to be read.