RogerBW's Blog

The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers 08 June 2024

1903 thriller. On a sailing trip in the Baltic and points nearby, two young men discover a German plot.

Indeed, this could reasonably be said to be the first thriller, and the first of the modern sort of spy story; I certainly got a feeling that Hitchcock would echo in North by Northwest, of the writer aiming to portray the potential effectiveness of a normal person against professional wrongdoers.

What's really significant, though, which writers like Fleming and le Carré would imitate even if Buchan wouldn't, is the mass of technical detail. Here it's Childers' own obsession of sailing small boats in shallow water, complete with that stock device of a narrator who doesn't know this stuff and has to have it explained for him (and thus the reader); indeed, the early chapters have something of the air of Three Men in a Boat, the litany of complaints in a comic tone.

But soon enough we shift to the meat of the story, and this is where you should make sure you have a nice legible copy of Chart A and Chart B on which to follow the action. Davies, who'd been out here on his own before summoning the narrator, made an acquaintance, followed his boat through a dubious channel in rough weather, and is now certain that the other man meant him to be wrecked and die. But why?

There are several strands meeting here: the technical business of getting the boat through marginal channels (largely based on a specific trip Childers had taken in the summer of 1897), the uncovering of the fiendish German plot, and at the same time a respect for the Germans collectively and individually: they're the enemy because (waves hands vaguely, above my pay grade), but an enemy who basically does things right—there's none of that demonisation of the people, or indeed of Kaiser Wilhelm, which you'd find in a lot of invasion literature and other propaganda. It feels very much like the respect from one professional spy or soldier to another of the same who happens to be on the other side. (All right, a German torpedo boat is "a low, grey rat of a vessel", which one feels a British one would probably not have been.) Indeed, in order to have a villain rather than mere opposition, there has to be an underhand plan promulgated by an English traitor, who of course is spotted for an Englishman at once.

"It was something in his looks and manner; you know how different we are from foreigners."

(Our Hero later disguises himself as a German sailor and arouses almost no suspicion.)

There's also the traitor's beautiful daughter, who doesn't get to do much but at least does something more than sitting and waiting to be claimed.

This was written as "a story with a purpose" in response fo Kaiser Wilhelm's building-up of the German navy, and seems (with its brethren in the invasion-literature genre) to have had at least some effect. Winston Churchill even claimed that this book was a reason for the establishment of the Rosyth naval base, but he was almost certainly… creatively misremembering, since the land had already been purchased before the book came out.

This was the book that turned the standard enemy of the invasion story from France to Germany. Its stylistic influence on Buchan and on Fleming is very apparent, and of course both of them were widely imitated in turn. It can be sluggish at times, but keep the charts to hand and you should make it through without running aground too often.

Freely available from Project Gutenberg and Standard Ebooks.

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