The Riddle of the Sands
by Christine Kling
Erskine Childers (1870-1922) wrote only one novel in his lifetime, The Riddle of the Sands, which is arguably the first modern-day spy thriller. Published in 1903, Childers’ sea-going classic has never gone out of print. Born in England but raised in Ireland, Childers’ own story of his conversion from steadfast supporter of the British Empire to radical Irish Nationalist is as fascinating as his fiction. He studied classics, and then law at Trinity College, Cambridge and began his career as a Committee Clerk at the House of Commons. An avid yachtsman, he bought his first boat at age twenty-three and frequently sailed the waters of the North Sea and the Baltic, often in the company of his brother, Henry, and later with his wife Molly. He fought for England in both the Boer War and World War I, but it was his growing support for Irish Home Rule that led him to sail his yacht, the fifty-one foot Colin Archer design, the Asgard, into a full gale to smuggle guns into Ireland in 1914. Childers was sentenced to death by the Irish Free State and executed by firing squad during the Irish Civil War in 1922.
Upon publication of The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers chafed at calling the book a novel, claiming instead ‘it was a story with a purpose.’ In the preface, Childers wrote that it was a factual tale told to him by his friend “Carruthers,” and originally the book carried the subtitle “A Record of Secret Service, edited by Erskine Childers.” Having stumbled into the world of publishing several years earlier when his sister arranged for the publication of a non-fiction book based on his letters describing the Boer War in Africa, Childers believed the most important aspect of his writing was his call for the modernization of the British military. With his story about two English chaps sailing off the Frisian Islands, he sought to alert England to the potential dangers of a German invasion. While his novel did have a profound impact on politics, and Winston Churchill credited it for Britain’s establishing several naval bases on the North Sea, today, the book endures as a pioneer of the genre of the British spy novel.
The Riddle of the Sands is a great sailing, adventure story told from the point of view of Carruthers, a clerk in the Foreign Office martyred to his work when all of his friends have abandoned the city for parties on country estates. When he receives a wire from an acquaintance inviting him to join a yacht in the Baltic, Carruthers packs his jaunty white flannels and boards a steamer for Hamburg. There, he meets up with Davies and discovers the Dulcibella is not the fine yacht he imagined, and the hilarious transformation of Carruthers from effete London club man to accomplished sailor is one of the great charms of the book.
Initially, readers are mystified along with Carruthers as to the purpose of Davies’ invitation. As the young sailors leave the Baltic and begin their cruise among the Frisian Islands, the taciturn Davies reveals that he was nearly shipwrecked and killed by a duplicitous Englishman, and he wants Carruthers to help him solve the riddle of what the traitor and his German navy friends are about. Thus begins their turn as spies listening at windows, donning disguises and mapping out railway lines, and above all, using Davies’ knowledge of the channels through the shifting sands.
Through a combination of Davies’ brilliant seamanship and Carruthers’ knowledge of human character, these two talented amateurs are able to outwit their enemies and discover Germany’s foul plans. In the process, Childers establishes two character types who would later populate the pages of the many spy/adventure novels that followed. First, in Carruthers, one finds the inept and bumbling civil servant who, in the face of danger, is able to rise to heights of ingenuity and self-reliance. This sort of “ordinary man” character was very popular up until the Second World War and the Cold War when the professionals took over. However, in John LeCarré’s The Constant Gardener, one sees the type has not lost popularity. The second character, Davies, is a man of stout heart and a patriotic loner and adventurer, a naïve sleuth but brilliant yachtsman who is endearing as he bumbles through the book’s romantic sub plot. This archetype of the amateur adventure hero has appeared in novels by the likes of Hammond Innes, John Buchan and Eric Ambler.
It was not only through characters that A Riddle in the Sands influenced the next generation of adventure/spy thrillers. Childers’ accurate and detailed descriptions of the sailing and Germany’s Frisian Islands gave the tale a realism not seen in the romantic tales of the previous century. In the novel, Childers borrowed verbatim from his logbooks of cruises in the North Sea, to the extent that some say the novel can be used as a sailing guidebook. “A few seconds more and we were whizzing through a slit between two wood jetties. Inside a small square harbor showed, but there was no room to round up properly and no time to lower sails. Davies just threw the kedge over, and it just got a grip in time to check our momentum and save our bowsprit from the quay-side.” Though some critics have complained about the amount of nautical detail, the book set the standard for the fact-filled techno-thriller that educates as well as it entertains.
Erskine Childers was the first in a long line of adventurer thriller writers who live lives that blur the line between fact and fiction. Hammond Innes, an experienced yachtsman, sailed his own boat from the Baltic to the Bay of Biscay, while Sam Llewellyn, author of many wonderful sailing thrillers including The Shadow of the Sands, a sequel to Childers’ classic, is a master sailor who has cruised in gold-plated racers and simple open boats. And then there is Clive Cussler (whose books often feature duos who seem to be direct descendants from Davies and Carruthers) who created his own NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency) and in over thirty years at the helm has discovered more than sixty undersea wrecks.
On the eve of his execution, Childers wrote in a letter to his wife, “I die loving England.” The enigmatic Anglo-Irishman gave up his life for his love of Ireland, but he left to us not only a new genre of spy thrillers, but also a damn good yarn.
Originally published in Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner. Oceanview Publishing, 2010.
Thanks for this review of The Riddle of the Sands. I enjoyed the book the first time I read it (soon after taking up sailing a decade ago) and like to delve into from time to time when I’m storm-bound on my own sailboat “Kuan Yin”.