THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS - Erskine Childers
First published in 1903 THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS, is an early espionage novels that I remember reading ... way back. The re-release as part of the Penguin Green Classics series, provided an excellent opportunity to revisit it. Interesting to look back now with adult eyes and to discover that it was, at the time, considered to be a prime example of British anti-German paranoia. Until a few years later. I think I've also read somewhere that Childers may have also had in mind a bit of rev up for British naval strategists.
Narrated by the uber-British Carruthers, this is the story of what starts out as a bit of yachting holiday around the coast of Germany and ends up a lot more sinister. Carruthers, classically foppish, obsessed with the minutiae of the life of a gentlemen, is a minor functionary in the Foreign Office. Despite reservations, he accepts the invitation of old-school-chum Davies to join him on his yacht. The facilities of which he somewhat under-estimates. Arriving with stacks of luggage and a series of parcels made up of the shopping requested by Davies, he finds that the "yacht" is a thirty-something foot, converted lifeboat. Despite a momentary concern that Carruthers is simply going to whinge and complain, he quickly adapts and finds himself enjoying the life of a hard working, journey-man sailor.
Whilst the story starts out somewhat light-heartedly it quickly becomes apparent that Davies' might actually be onto something. There's something afoot in the area, with skulduggery and very unsportsmanlike sailing eventually convincing Carruthers that Davies might be right to suspect the mysterious German tycoon / sailor and his very attractive daughter.
THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS is a book that comes equipped with maps. And frequent map references as Carruthers narrates events directly to the reader. Needless to say if you're a fan of maps, then this is the perfect use of them. Not that you need to follow too closely exactly where the goings on, are going on.
Told in language exactly like that you'd expect a minor functionary of the Foreign Office from 1903 to be using, this is immersion reading. Knowing the not too distant future of the British / German relationship does provide the reader with an interesting perspective, and the notion that perhaps Childers was trying to make a point some resonance. But really, you can just read this as a straight out spy / espionage thriller of its time. Perhaps a little less action packed than current day thrillers, but a ripping good yarn to boot.
(According to Wikipedia, Erskine Childers was executed by firing squad in 1922, during the Irish civil war. The article claims that his last words were a joke at the expense of his executioners: "Take a step or two forward, lads. It will be easier that way." John Bucan later wrote of him "no revolution ever produced a nobler or purer spirit.")
Tempted by the idea of duck shooting, Carruthers joins his friend Davies on a yachting expedition in the Baltic. But Davies has more on his mind than killing fowl. As they navigate the waters and treacherous, shifting sands on board the Dulcibella, Carruthers learns the real reason behind their trip – and how the safety of Britain depends on it. The Riddle of the Sands is full of danger, double-crosses, and discoveries on which the fate of nations hangs by a thread.