Friday 11 April 2014

The Riddle of the Sands and the birth of the spy novel

The Riddle of the Sands is a classic novel of 1903 by Erskine Childers which is widely regarded as one of the first notable spy novels. I saw the 1979 film version a long time ago, but despite a starry cast, including Michael York and the always watchable Jenny Agutter, it found it a bit flat. Perhaps partly because of that, it has taken me a long time to get round to reading the novel itself, but I recently read the Atlatntic Books edition, which includes an excellent afterword by Professor Robert Giddings.

Briefly, the story is narrated by a rather irritating civil servant called Carruthers, who is invited by an old university friend, Davies, to join him on a yachting trip. Carruthers' behaviour and attitudes in the early pages are boorish, although he recognises this later, and develops into a more likeable character. The relationship between him and the eager, obsessive Davies, is one of the strengths of the book. As they sail around the Frisian Islands, they have to figure out whether a mysterious man called Dollmann is all that he seems.

This is an important book for two reasons. First, in the short term, it drew people's attention to the threat to international peace posed by the Kaiser's Germany. Second, it set a standard for the spy story, and paved the way for the work of the likes of Eric Ambler and, much later, John Le Carre. Ambler and Le Carre, like Childers, were men who were prepared to question the status quo, but the story of how in real life, Childers eventually finished up paying the ultimate price for his attitudes is fascinating as well as upsetting.

There is a huge amount about sailing in this story, and - despite my admiration for the book - I felt this was a mistake. At one point Carruthers says of a train journey "the pace was execrable" and to be brutally honest, by that point. I felt much the same about The Riddle of the Sands. I suppose this is because endless details about how to sail a boat don't really interest me, yet Childers went overboard on them (sorry, couldn't resist that!)

Not a perfect novel, then, and I don't think Childers really was a committed novelist. He was more interested in ideas and actions and politics, and he was evidently as brave, stubborn and obsessive as Davies. But there's no doubt that he made a lasting contribution to espionage fiction. Giddings says the book has never been out of print, so I have not called it a Forgotten Book. And despite my reservations, it certainly does deserve to continue to be remembered.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thanks for this thoughtful critique. I'll admit I haven't got round to reading this myself. As you say, such an impact, but that doesn't mean it's a perfectly-written story.

Unknown said...

By coincidence, Martin, I am reading Riddle along with Buchan's Greenmantle, as part of my research for a WWI spy novel.about the buold up to the war. The ebook will go out in June/July. I do agree with you about the sailing in particular - I've wet my feet a few times but enough is enough. Both books have a travelogue feel, which is irritating, but the facts they bring up are not.

Unknown said...

Martin, I am reading Riddle and Buchan's Greenmantle as research for my own spy story about the build up to WWI: ebook out in July. I agree with you about the sailing - I've wet my feet a few times, and I love Treasure Island, but enough is enough. Both books have the plodding travelogue feel, but the facts they dig up are very useful. Best wishes

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, thanks. Definitely worth a read, but (for me) definitely could do with pruning.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Peter, good to hear from you and I'd be glad to know more about your research. I did like the book, just felt it too long.