One of my goals as an avid reader is to get through the entire list of 100 books designated by the Observer (UK) newspaper as the greatest novels of all time. I’ve currently covered about 65 percent of the titles, with the most recent being The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. Unlike most of the other entries on the list, I’d never even heard of this book or its writer, but since the work was described as “a prewar invasion-scare spy thriller by a writer later shot for his part in the Irish republican rising”, I figured it would be a fun and engrossing read. Unfortunately, this is the kind of novel that doesn’t stand the test of time and came off as boring rather than exciting.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The novel is told from the point of view of Carruthers, a young clerk in the Foreign Office whose friends have all gone away from London for the holidays. Faced with the prospect of spending a couple of boring weeks all alone in the city, Carruthers seizes on a late arriving invitation to go “yachting”. The invitation is from a man named Davies, whom Carruthers doesn’t know very well, having met him just once before. Nevertheless, Carruthers packs his bag, gathers numerous supplies that Davies asked for, like a stove, compass, and other miscellany, and sets off to meet up with the ship, the Dulcibella.
Upon arriving at port, Carruthers is shocked to discover that this adventure won’t be like any other yachting excursion he’s been on. Instead of a luxury boat with as crew to handle all the work, the Dulcibella is an old, cramped, creaking thing, with Davies and Carruthers as the only passengers. What’s more, their destination, according to Davies, won’t be some exotic resort like Monte Carlo, but instead will be the Frisian Islands near Germany. Despite all this, Carruthers decides to stick it out with Davies.
As the two head towards the Frisian Islands, the reader slowly learns about their individual characters and about the true purpose of the trip. Davies is an exceptional seaman who knows everything there is to know about boats, maps, charts, and tides. Carruthers, while woefully inexperienced on a boat, is a quick learner, unafraid of manual work, and possesses a sharp intellect that ends up serving him well on the real mission, which is to expose a ring of German spies working out a plan to invade England from the north.
The rest of the novel then deals with various aspects of the suspected invasion plan, telling how Davies got his wind up in the first place, how he thinks the spies can be found out for sure, and how he and Carruthers actually go about doing just that. The novel is highly detailed in respect to nautical distances, tide levels, and the like, so if you don’t follow along with the accompanying maps, a lot of the action will be lost on you.
My Reaction: I was looking forward to reading this “spy thriller”, but let me tell you, The Riddle of the Sands is hardly thrilling in the modern sense of the word! To say that the action unfolds at a leisurely pace would be generous; Childers takes his own sweet time about every little thing in the novel. In fact, if I hadn’t read a summary of the novel prior to picking it up, I wouldn’t have known what it was about until 14 long chapters into the narrative!
Even when the purpose was revealed, the plot seemed kind of ridiculous. Would two men really take on an entire ring of spies without contacting English authorities for backup or help? Sure, I guess Davies brought up some objections, like not wanting to get Dollman’s daughter in trouble or not wanting to run the risk of having an official laugh in his face, but still… it seemed like quite a stretch that two guys would be able to pull off everything that Davies and Carruthers did.
Aside from the plot problem, I do have to give Childers credit for providing some in-depth characterization for the two leads. The reader actually comes to learn a lot about Davies and Carruthers, and I enjoyed the fact that the two men were so vastly different, and yet were able to operate on the same page most of the time, eventually getting to the point where they knew what the other was thinking and could depend on each other to act in certain ways in certain situations.
Another positive point in the book’s favor is that the writing is very good. Childers manages to be engaging more often than not, which is quite a feat given what little is going on most of the time. But the fact that I stuck with this rather long book despite how boring it was is a testament to the writing and the characters, so the experience wasn’t as painful as it might have been.
Overall, The Riddle of the Sands has a very dated feel to it. It’s not the kind of thriller that fans of John Le Carre or other more recent spy novelists are familiar with, but I suppose the book has a place for history buffs. Just know that you’re in for a long journey if you decide to tackle this title!