Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands:
a Record of Secret Service
Penguin Popular Classics 1995 (1903)
I don’t normally seek out thrillers, even classic ones such as The Riddle of the Sands, and though this has historic interest – set just before the Second Boer War and scant years before the death of Victoria – it’s not a period I’m particularly interested in. Add to this that it’s about sailing on the North Sea coast of Germany when dismal autumnal fogs abound and it sounds like a novel I would normally pass over. But after an initially slow but deliberately drab beginning the story picks up, starts to tease the imagination and, even for the recalcitrant landlubber, sparks admiration for the enthusiasm and bravery of the two protagonists.
The novel opens in or around 1897 with Carruthers (we never know his first name, though the 1979 film has his given name as Charles) in despondent mood at the Foreign Office: society functions in September are few and far between and Parliament is still in recess. An invitation from a former acquaintance at Oxford, Arthur Davies, to sail the Baltic in a yacht and indulge in some duck-shooting offers an opportunity to escape boredom, but once abroad (and aboard) he discovers all is not as it seems. The yacht is not the luxury boat he expected, the crew will number just one – himself – and precious little duck-shooting will present itself. In fact, Davies is nursing a secret worry that soon turns the vacation from cruise to, as the subtitle informs, secret service.
Much of the framework of Erskine Childers’ novel is provided by the actual logs he kept when cruising the very same coasts in 1897 in the Vixen; a century later the logs still survive, stored in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. Childers apparently described the Vixen as “a very ugly little 5 tonner with no headroom” but, along with the fact that the Riddle‘s converted ship’s lifeboat (modelled on the Vixen) was named the Dulcibella after his sister, his evident fondness for the craft comes through strongly in the novel.
In the Preface and the Epilogue Childers makes the pretence that he has received the facts of the case from two gentlemen he calls ‘Carruthers’ and ‘Davies’, and that he has furnished a first-person narrative by combining Carruthers’ notes, plus the logbook and charts from the Dulcibella and interviews with the two men. But while Childers is supposedly what we’d now call the ghost-writer, it is crystal clear that both of our intrepid heroes reflect aspects of Childers’ own personality: love of seamanship, love of country (or, rather, a chosen cause), bravery combined with calculated risk-taking and resourcefulness. These aspects are evident in the author’s eventful life as student, clerk in the House of Commons, soldier in the Boer War, chronicler, amateur sailor and, later in the 20th century, Irish nationalist, gun-runner and firing-squad victim in Ireland’s civil war. The Riddle of the Sands however eschews the violence, casual gun-play and pulp fiction cliffhangers that typify most subsequent spy-thrillers in favour of dogged leg-work, lengthy rational argument and consummate patience, all of which seems characteristic of Childers himself.
Doggedness, lengthy argument and patience aren’t normally recommendations for a thriller, and yet The Riddle of the Sands is very gripping. Its tension as well as appeal lies in the frequent descriptions of ordinary situations that could mask likely threat and actual danger. The whole carries a sense of authenticity, based as it is on a record of sailing trips, real places and Childers’ knowledge of German and Germany, that convinces the reader more than the gadgetry and reliance on dramatic coincidence that can be the stock in trade of the genre. In fact, in the days before even zepellins let alone aircraft or even drones it’s impossible to underestimate the importance of surveillance on the ground, or even on shifting sands, of the type that Carruthers and Davies undertake. Riddle is a landmark in this genre, just preceded perhaps by Kipling’s Kim in 1901 (Childers’ novel appeared in 1903); its literary influence reached through John Buchan, Ian Fleming and beyond.
Its political influence, however, was uppermost in the author’s mind, as he did view the military potential of Germany, in particular its naval ambitions, as a real threat to Britain’s imperial status and national safety, and he felt that his government was both complacent and unprepared when it came to Britain’s sea defences in the North Sea. The emphasis in the book shifts from interest in German’s own sea defences to its likely plans for attack and invasion through England’s east coast – the very route for ingress by Angles, Jutes and Saxons in the Dark Ages and later by Danish Vikings – and in this Childers hoped to influence Cabinet and Ministry policy in an area he thought deficient. The popularity of the book apparently did fulfill the author’s intention which was to effect change, so necessary in the run-up (though unsuspected at the time) to the Great War a few years later.
But this was fiction, his only fiction perhaps, and so we moderns now engage less with strategy and more with characters. Apart from Davies and Carruthers (the latter name survives in many parodies of ripping yarns of derring-do and stiff upper lips) we have a German naval commander who gains Carruthers’ respect, a murderous traitor who appears to escape retribution, a vapid love interest and sundry Germans with latent or real menace. Include in this mixture detailed maps and charts to plot the course of action and it’s not surprising that The Riddle of the Sands pleasantly confounded my expectations and justified its inclusion in lists of key must-reads of fiction.
A repost of a review first published January 2013