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Riddle of the Sands

by Erskine Childers.

Where to find it:

Get the Project Gutenberg   Etext
Get the Plucker    ebook.
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Riddle of the Sands is often said to be the first modern spy novel; it's also an excellent account of coast-wise cruising in a small boat. Two friends in a small yacht sail the shallow, stormy waters of the German North Sea coast, to uncover a German plan which menaces England. It was published in 1903, and is set at the very beginning of the 20th century, well before WWI. The book begins slowly, but it soon picks up speed, and is exciting to the end.

The book opens with an brief account of how a young British gentleman (Carruthers) was spending a miserable summer in London, where he was stuck at his job in the British Foreign Office, while all of the fashionable set were at house parties in the country without him. The author presents the tedium almost too well, but the slow pace is soon broken by a message from an old college acquaintance. Can Carruthers come to the Baltic and go yachting and duck hunting? Carruthers can, simply because he's feeling sorry for himself, and this seems a fittingly miserable end to an unpleasant summer; a great way to show that he's not dependent on the fashionable friends who seem to have forgotten him.

Carruthers arrives on the Baltic coast, and finds that the grand, crewed yacht he had imagined is actually a small lifeboat converted to a sailing yacht, with no crew, and no room for his rather large suitcase. He makes the best of it, and as their cruise progresses, he learns that his friend Davies has found more than ducks to hunt. An Englishman, Dollmann, who is masquerading as a German, had tried to wreck him on a sandbar on the German (Frisian) coast of the North Sea. Because of this, Davies is convinced that the Germans plan to use the uncharted channels of the Frisian Coast for some sort of strategic purpose against England. The friends decide to go to the North Sea and investigate.

Once in the North Sea, they spend days mapping the channels, but learn that Dollmann is in charge of a salvage company which is trying to raise gold from a wreck on the sands. They leave off their mapping, much to Davies displeasure, and begin to look into Dollmann and his associates. They get deeper and deeper into spying and intrigue as they try to figure out what the salvage operation is a cover for. It often seems as if the mystery is simply a fantasy, but they get a late-night visitor, and there is still no explanation for Dollmann's treachery toward Davies. Something must be going on behind the scenes.

Every good spy story has a love interest, and Davies is very interested in Dollmann's daughter. Since this story was written over one hundred years ago, the treatment is very chaste and Edwardian. Frauline Dollmann is quite friendly with Davies, until she spots a book on his bookshelf. Her almost panicked reaction to a book by an obscure English yachtsman gives them an important clue about Herr Dollmann, and eventually puts them onto the right scent.

Carruthers and Davies are playing at spying, but neither is a James Bond. They are very much in the dark about what's going on until the end, and what they eventually learn comes as much by accident and hard work as by brilliance. They make a marathon row through fog to learn about the salvage company, follow the Germans by train, and stow away on a salvage tug. Tides and fog let them learn the German's plans, foil their attempt to catch them, and make their escape.

In the end, the two learn that Germany is making long-range preparations for an invasion of England. Given the history of the book, that shouldn't surprise you! You still have to read it to find out what Dollmann's secret is, what the Germans are really up to, and what happens with Davies and Frauline Dollmann. The good guys win in the end, of course, but the touch and go portions make for a great story. By the end of the book, Carruthers has overcome his self-centeredness, and Davies has shown himself to be a solid, sensible fellow and a very competent seaman. Overall, it's a satisfying book and a good read.

Riddle was written by Erskine Childers, a British gentleman, who's life was as adventurous as those of the characters in the book. He sailed the Frisian and Baltic coasts in a 30-foot sailing boat in the last years of the 19th century, and the yacht Dulcibella of the story was modeled on his own Dulcibella. Childers' descriptions of the scenery, and of what it was like to cruise the area, are said to be quite accurate.

The book was first published in 1903, to alert the British public that there was a danger of invasion from the continent. Childers' purpose was to convince Englishmen that there was a real danger from the continent. Too often, books with an axe to grind wind up preachy and dull, but Childers managed to steer clear of the temptation to preach to excess in the story itself. Chapter 10 harps on Germany's might and imperial ambitions, but for a modern reader, it is necessary history, though it may have seemed excessive ax-grinding to the British audience in 1903. Fortunately, Childers put the majority of his preaching into the Epilogue and Postscript, leaving the book itself a good yarn which is not only a good spy novel, but also one of the cannonical works of small-boat cruising fiction. This book is credited with convincing the Admiralty to establish bases on the channel coast. The book may have been a bit too effective at convincing Englishmen of the threat they faced: there is a story to the effect that the Germans tried several Englishmen for espionage in the years before WWI, when they poked into the wrong places on the German coast in imitation of Riddle of the Sands.

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