The Riddle of the Sands

Erskine Childers’ novel “The Riddle of the Sands – A Record of Secret Service” has never been out of print since it was first published in 1903. It has influenced a great many thriller writers since, a god-parent, if not quite the father, of the modern thriller novel.

It is very much a creation of its time – Edwardian England, when the British Establishment was becoming increasingly concerned about the way Germany – still a relatively new nation – was equipping itself for war. It was also a period when new techniques of espionage were being defined, though, thankfully, before anything approaching modern technology had taken over.

Anyone who has undertaken any sort of covert observational work would attest to the accuracy of the pace of the spying and the scale of the operation. There are no master-villains, just ordinary Germans, something like Carruthers and Davies themselves, carrying out their own strategy at a time of increasing international paranoia and the race to an inevitable war. There is a baddie, though I won’t spoil the story if you haven’t read it by going into any more details. All I will say is that he is both a towering and tragic individual, torn by conflicting loyalties, not really a villain at all in the traditional sense. There’s a girl too, though fortunately the romantic elements of the novel are understated.

This is very much a feet-on-the-ground spy story, perhaps I should say sea-boots for this is one of the great novels about sailing.

The plot line is relatively simple, and I won’t give too much away. The story is told by Carruthers – a name to conjure with, a kind of byword for an Establishment figure in the century or more since – who is invited to join his old friend Arthur Davies who is sailing his yacht amidst the Friesian Islands, off the German coast in the North Sea or, as it was popularly known at the time, the German Ocean.

Carruthers takes up the invitation expecting his friend to have a comfortable yacht in the luxurious sense, complete with servants. Instead the Dulcibella is barely big enough to cope with the two of them. Carruthers works for the British government – the Foreign Office – but is on leave. A lot of the book is taken up with the details of this sailing voyage (the book comes complete with maps and charts – if you had a yacht of your own you could follow their adventures and route with little difficulty.)

This is not a page-turning thriller in the modern sense. There is as much about their voyaging as there is about espionage, those gripping scenes being scattered throughout the book. But this does give the yarn an air of reality. And you do keep wanting to turn the pages to find out what happens as the two young men are drawn into a German plot to invade England.

This is espionage as it really was, and perhaps still is. The book is presented with an introduction and epilogue by Childers, suggesting that Carruthers has related the account almost as a kind of report to him – a literary device, admittedly, but it is worth remembering that Childers worked at Westminster for much of his career, and also in Intelligence. Writing for him was very much a side-line. “The Riddle of the Sands” is his only novel.

It was published to great success, soon achieving both a popularity and also a great fear in the public mind; waking up the political establishment and the people of Britain to the possibility of a war with Germany. It’s said that, before the novel was published, the east coast of England was little prepared for defence and all the great naval bases were elsewhere. The British had always assumed that the traditional enemy would always be France. Few novels and thrillers have led to a rethink of defensive strategy – “The Riddle of the Sands” is probably the only one to make a significant tactical difference.

There is an element of verifiable truth in the novel. Childers had undertaken a similar voyage to his two heroes just a few years earlier. The details of the islands, the movements of the tides, the hazards of the sea fogs are taken from life, and conjured up on the pages. Childers is very good at evoking a sense of place, in much the way his admirer John Buchan did a few years later. You can smell the salt water and the mud of the islands even as you read. The sights and sounds of the journey are brought to life by the skill of the author.

Interestingly the plot inspired two Royal Navy officers, both amateur yachtsmen, to undertake a similar voyage in 1910, where they genuinely did spy on German naval defences.

Erskine Childers’ book is not just a thriller but a considerable work of literature. It might not race along like a Robert Ludlum, but it really does give a flavour of spying at the time.

Erskine Childers’ end was tragic. He sympathised with the cause of Irish Nationalism, joining the Nationalists when the Free State was established. In the Civil War that followed the schism between the Nationalists and the proponents of the Free State, he was arrested and executed by firing squad. Today we might call it judicial murder. A tragic end for a brave and far-seeing individual.

“The Riddle of the Sands” has been filmed, in a British version with Simon MacCorkindale, Michael York, Alan Badel and Jenny Agutter – a beautifully photographed film, made on location, which really captures the essence of what Childers wrote. There is, interestingly enough, a German version, though I’ve never managed to see it.

But even well over a century after its publication “The Riddle of the Sands” is well worth seeking out. And unlike some of the thrillers published today, I think it’s safe to say that this is very much how Edwardian espionage must really have been. Childers’ novel not only inspired a generation of spy novelists but almost certainly a whole generation of real-life spies.

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