Classic review: The Riddle of the Sands
Was Erskine Childers' 1903 novel the first great modern spy novel?
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John Buchan would go on to write many similar pursuit thrillers -- see my earlier Library without Walls essay on his work -- but he himself judged "The Riddle of the Sands" “the best story of adventure published in the last quarter of a century.” As he went on to say in his 1926 preface to a reissue of that novel:Skip to next paragraph
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“It is a tale of the puzzling out of a mystery which only gradually reveals itself, and not till the very end reaches its true magnificence; but its excitement begins on the first page, and there is a steady crescendo of interest.”
Buchan adds, “As for the characters, I think they are the most fully realized of any adventure story that I have met, and the atmosphere of grey northern skies and miles of yeasty water and wet sands is as masterfully reproduced as in any of Conrad’s.”
Erskine Childers’s novel opens in the first week of September, presumably a year or two before 1903. Carruthers, a somewhat foppish young Oxford graduate working for the Foreign Office, is bored with his deskbound life. His friends have all gone off shooting or fishing for their holidays and he’s feeling left out. After all, he’s been stuck all summer in London largely because of the caprice of one of his superiors and partly because of an unnamed “cloud on the international horizon.” At just this moment, Carruthers unexpectedly receives a letter from a former university acquaintance named Davies, who invites him to go sailing around the Baltic. Davies offers further temptation with talk of some excellent duck shooting.
“The letter,” writes Carruthers, “marked an epoch for me; but I little suspected the fact as I crumpled it into my pocket.” After dithering a bit, Carruthers decides to go, though he is a bit disconcerted by Davies’s request that he bring with him, along with two rifles, rigging screws, oilskin rain gear, some Raven Mixture tobacco, a prismatic compass, and a No. 3 Rippingille stove. Somewhat resentfully, he rounds up all this gear and makes his way to Flensburg, Germany, where he is to rendezvous on September 26th with Davies and the yacht Dulcibella.
There both young men are in for a shock.
When Davies appears, he is dressed in “an old Norfolk jacket, muddy brown shoes, grey flannel trousers (or had they been white?) and an ordinary tweed cap.” Carruthers has naturally brought along proper yachting clothes, appropriate to a pleasure cruise with lots of drinks and good food and chaps to raise the anchor, trim the sails and what not. As it turns out, the Dulcibella is just a thirty-foot flat-bottomed boat, drawing very little water when the centerboard is up. Davies admits he can actually sail her alone, though life is easier and more pleasant with a companion.
Childers makes sport of Carruthers’s early days aboard the Dulcibella, and for a while the novel is almost a reprise, with a slight reduction in number, of Jerome K. Jerome’s comic "Three Men in a Boat." But gradually, as Carruthers and the reader are introduced to the intricacies of sailing a small vessel in tidal estuaries, amid shifting sand bars, the narrative begins to darken. Why did Davies want Carruthers to join him? Could it have something to do with the latter’s fluent command of German? Why does Davies repeatedly urge that they should work their way into the North Sea, where he had been sailing a few weeks earlier? His curiosity aroused, Carruthers skims through the ship’s log and discovers that the pages covering three days in early September have been torn out.