Classic review: The Riddle of the Sands
Was Erskine Childers' 1903 novel the first great modern spy novel?
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What is that message? Childers himself was an avid small-craft sailor, with a passion for exploring the North Sea and the German coast. The maps and charts he includes are detailed views of this territory, and especially the area around the Frisian Islands and the resort city of Norderney. (An aside: Some readers may recall Isak Dinesen’s wonderful story set there in "Seven Gothic Tales," “The Deluge at Norderney.”) It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the secret involves possible conflict with Germany. As Carruthers ominously says: “She grows, and strengthens, and waits.”Skip to next paragraph
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In this regard, "The Riddle of the Sands" may be viewed as a distinguished example among those many contemporary novels and stories that imagine a great war in the near future. As early as 1871, George Chesney’s "The Battle of Dorking" depicted a German invasion of England, and as late as July 1914, Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Danger!” warned of England’s vulnerability to submarine attack. Even comic writers addressed the theme: In P. G. Wodehouse’s "The Swoop" (1909), an English boy scout saves his country; in Saki’s "When William Came" (1913), Germany has conquered and colonized Britain.
It is almost disconcerting, then, that in "The Riddle of the Sands" Davies frequently expresses not hatred but admiration for the Germans, as individuals and as a people, as sailors and as engineers. He even weeps at a memorial to her fallen soldiers and has nothing but praise for the kaiser, who he says works hard for his country and looks to its future. Nonetheless, Davies remains a heart-of-oak Englishman, patriotic to the core. By the end, he and Carruthers risk their lives to alert the Admiralty to...
Well, I won’t say what. But before a climax that depends upon the inexorable movement of the tide, the two friends will make a daring sea journey by night, try desperately to decipher a few enigmatic clues that may or may not refer to a mysterious salvage operation, wonder who if anyone can be trusted, shake off inscrutable enemy agents, unmask a traitor and, not least, rescue a beautiful young woman. As always in early spy fiction, hardened professionals are no match for plucky amateurs.
One last note: I haven’t said much about Erskine Childers (1870-1922), but his life is even more sensational than his novel (the only one he ever wrote), though it comes without a happy ending. Educated at Cambridge and a longtime clerk to the House of Commons, Childers served bravely in the Boer War and rose to the rank of major in World War I, earning Britain’s Distinguished Service Cross. But he was Irish on his mother’s side and eventually committed himself to the outlawed republican struggle for an independent Ireland. Captured during the civil war with a small pistol (supposedly a gift from Michael Collins), he was imprisoned as a terrorist and then, partly as an example to others, executed in 1922. He accepted his fate calmly and seems to have even welcomed his chance to die as a martyr to a cause he firmly, even fanatically, believed in. His last words were to the firing squad: “Take a step or two forwards, lads. It will be easier that way.”
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays. The latest, Classics for Pleasure, was published this fall.