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The Riddle of the Sands

The Riddle of the Sands - Erskine Childers, Milton Bearden I am finally done with Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands, A Record of Secret Service, or as I call it, Two Men in a Boat, Not to Mention the Espionage, and I think it easy to detect in my statement that I found reading the book something of a chore. It’s not completely the fault of the book but instead some of the hype surrounding it. I’ve seen it called the progenitor of the modern spy novel and a “thriller anticipating Frederick Forysth and Len Deighton.”But it really has more in common with the classic Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. A great deal of the book is the adventures of two congenial Englishmen in a small sail boat with enough nautical terms and details to delight any armchair salty dog. But while sailing, Arthur Davies, the owner of the yacht Dulcibella, confesses to Charles Carruthers (the narrator of the book), that he had more in mind than just duck hunting in the Frisian islands when he invited his friend aboard.Davies had earlier made friends with a Herr Dollman, whose own much superior yacht the Medusa was also cruising the shifting sands and numerous inlets between the coasts of Holland and Germany. Davies, however, suspect that Dollman is really an Englishman posing as a German. And he further believes the putative German attempted to kill him by leading his boat through a dangerous channel during a storm and abandoning him to his fate. He has summoned his friend Carruthers, a minor functionary in the Foreign Office, both for his excellent command of German and because he needs another hand with the sailing.Now here’s where I’m confused. If you discover someone who claims to be English but you suspect is German investigating the English coast, you’re bound to be suspicious. But not so much the other way around. It’s more likely that you would wonder if this might be an English agent spying on the Germans, something you would probably support rather than suspect. And as murder attempts go, it’s not very blatant or obviously very successful.I guess much of my problem is that I don’t share the historical context of the intended readers of this book. When it was published in 1903, it was a hit with the military and political figures in Great Britain who worried about their country’s preparedness in the face of growing German aggression. After all, this was a time when Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, was influencing both the British Admiralty and the German Kaiser. Many suspected that Germany and Britain might go to war based on the ever increasing arms race and Childer’s book helped raise the anxiety level, with the navies trying to match dreadnought for dreadnought.The book has a very low level of danger, more of a Boy’s Own Life sort of danger, with more to fear from the sea than from man. Having it described as a thriller keeps one waiting for some real brushes with death instead of brushes with ennui. There is a very nice rowboat crossing in a heavy fog that highlights the seamanship of Davies and a furtive surveillance of a meeting between Dollman, a patrol boat captain and the mysterious Herr Böhme and Herr Grimm. The surveillance, however, is particularly unsatisfying because Carruthers can hear so little and what little he does hear hardly sounds incriminating.There’s also a very tame romance that feels artificial, although I may be prejudiced by knowing from the foreward that it was added at the insistence of the publishers. However, it does help provide some important motivation for Davies.The ending of the book is also lacking any real suspense. Carruthers is separated from Davies and being written in first person, the person who has driven the plot is annoyingly missing. This is disappointing bcause Davies suspicions are justified, although it turns out he’s got the whole thing backwards.So I can hardly recommend this book as the progenitor of the modern spy novel and God forbid as a thriller. But if you’re looking for a pleasant sailing adventure yarn with the hint of some amateur espionage, then have I got the book for you.PS The story of the author’s life definitely qualifies as adventure. After the success of the novel he continued to write of a coming war, smuggled arms to Irish revolutionaries, joined the Navy to fight the Kaiser and in 1922 was executed for his continuing support of Irish home rule.