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Classic review: The Riddle of the Sands

Was Erskine Childers' 1903 novel the first great modern spy novel?

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Compared to modern spy novels, "The Riddle of the Sands" develops very slowly.  For much of its first third, the book seems primarily an account of in-shore sailing on the Baltic, with occasional storms for excitement. Little wonder that the novel has been regularly reprinted as a classic of nautical fiction, and long been a particular favorite of amateur yachtsmen.  

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Still, these early pages do chart Carruther’s education in seeing, since piloting, navigation, and general seamanship require close observation of wind, water, and weather. To a great degree, Childers’s novel revolves around detecting that which is hidden, whether a channel or a sandbar, a secret operation or a person’s true self.

One day, when all boats are confined to port because of fog,  a garrulous German barge captain casually refers to how he saved Davies from disaster and likely death when, during a gale, the Dulcibella ran aground in a treacherous passage near one of the Frisian Islands. Carruthers can’t bear it any longer: What was Davies doing there? Finally, the full story comes out -- and before long the two young men, now friends, are cautiously, almost surreptitiously making their way back to the North Sea.

It will, however, prove to be far more than “a gay pursuit of a perilous quest” or one of those stories “from the six penny magazines” about a spy “with a Kodak in his tie-pin, a sketchbook in the lining of his coat, and a selection of disguises in his hand luggage.” There is, for example, the matter of the sleekly powerful yacht Medusa. And a certain girl named Clara. And a stealthy night visitor to the Dulcibella. The enthralled reader, like any good sailor watching the sea and sky, should pay close attention to everything – even those old naval histories and memoirs that Davies almost throws overboard. And hang on: The book is soon moving faster and faster.

If you look at the title page of "The Riddle of the Sands", it reads “A Record of Secret Service Recently Achieved. Edited by Erskine Childers, Author of 'In the Ranks of the C.I.V.' With Two Maps and Two Charts.” It hardly sounds like a novel at all. There’s even a preface in which we’re told that Carruthers came to Childers and related all the discoveries made on his voyages with Davies. These were duly communicated to “the proper authorities” and had served “to avert a great national danger.” But, all too typically, the government seems to have taken no long-term action. Hence, Carruthers now wishes to bring this important information to the public, and asks Childers to make the material into an entertaining narrative so as to attract a wide circle of readers.  What matters most, he insists, is getting the book’s warning message across to as many people as possible.


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