Friday, March 15, 2019

The Riddle of the Sands

I just read it for free on Kindle
The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

 This is another title I picked up from the Slightly Foxed podcast, which lauded it as a gripping boys' adventure and minor classic.  It was indeed pretty exciting, but it's waaaay longer than I anticipated!  I thought it would be a quick little read on my phone's Kindle app for odd moments, but it took me weeks.

Carruthers, young man about town, is invited on a yachting cruise by an old school friend, Davies, and he packs up his nattiest yachting outfit and heads for the north coast of Germany to meet Davies and relax for some duck shooting.  Except, the 'yacht' turns out to be a tiny (but tough!) little souped-up boat, and what Davies really wants is to explore the north-west coast of Germany in excruciating detail, because he's become convinced that something nefarious is going on.  Something worth killing for, that involves the German navy and concerns England.  It's clearly their patriotic duty to investigate.  So Carruthers and Davies set out to explore the sandy, difficult coast, outwit the German authorities, and figure out... the riddle of the sands.


Most of the action takes place in Friesland.

It's an exciting spy story of two amateurs against professionals, and it's also a sailing story.  In fact, there is a simply incredible amount about boats.  I'm pretty sure the entire Horatio Hornblower series does not contain this much material about boats and sailing and navigation.

The novel was published in 1903, and had an enormous impact.  From what I can gather, it was really one of the very first spy novels -- it built on Victorian adventure novels but introduced a twist with modern anxieties about invasion from other European powers and espionage, and it inspired an avalanche of spy novels.*  I've seen claims that it even inspired the founding of MI5 or of British naval bases, but that seems iffy to me.  I'd like more information on that.

You can really absorb the zeitgeist of 1903 here.  These two young men are entirely a product of their time and place, which makes it interesting.   You can see World War I coming over the horizon.  There is a surprising amount of admiration for the German Kaiser from Davies, which I didn't expect:
'Here's this huge empire, stretching half over central Europe—an empire growing like wildfire, I believe, in people, and wealth, and everything. They've licked the French, and the Austrians, and are the greatest military power in Europe. I wish I knew more about all that, but what I'm concerned with is their sea-power. It's a new thing with them, but it's going strong, and that Emperor of theirs is running it for all it's worth. He's a splendid chap, and anyone can see he's right....'

For two days we travelled slowly up the mighty waterway that is the strategic link between the two seas of Germany. Broad and straight, massively embanked, lit by electricity at night till it is lighter than many a great London street; traversed by great war vessels, rich merchantmen, and humble coasters alike, it is a symbol of the new and mighty force which, controlled by the genius of statesmen and engineers, is thrusting the empire irresistibly forward to the goal of maritime greatness.    'Isn't it splendid?' said Davies. 'He's a fine fellow, that emperor.'
  It is really strange to see this character with such admiration for a guy I think of as bombastic, uncontrolled, disastrously impulsive, and fatally Prussian-minded.  But in 1903 I suppose the average citizen didn't know all that.

It's worth reading, and pretty exciting, but be prepared for a really overwhelming amount about boats.



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*John Buchan came next, John LeCarre....I suppose without Erskine Childers we might not have James Bond or Jack Ryan or Jason Bourne, at least not in the form we're used to.

1 comment:

Joy Weese Moll said...

This is fascinating -- both as its own story and where it fits in the history of Europe and the history of spy literature.