The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service

By Erskine Childers; David Trotter | Go to book overview
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The Riddle of the Sands is itself almost as much of a riddle as the sands it describes so memorably: the stretch of banks and channels off the North Sea coast of Germany through which Davies and Carruthers sail their small but sturdy yacht, the Dulcibella. Erskine Childers's first and only novel begins as a humorous nautical yarn, a kind of Baltic "Two Men in a Boat", converts itself abruptly into a treatise on the fate of empires, then touches in a gingerly way on the subject of romance (at one point, hero and heroine encounter briefly, having parked their respective dinghies, on a windswept sandbank), before concluding as a robust action adventure. These generic metamorphoses, at first so disorientating, are the key to its unique place in the history of spy fiction.

When he wrote the book, Childers was employed as a clerk in the House of Commons, drafting legislation. Sailing was his hobby, and his secret life. In the late 1890s he made a number of voyages through the Frisian Islands and the Kiel Canal into the Baltic, with a friend or his brother Henry as crew. There was in him something of both his main protagonists: Carruthers, the sardonic, self-pitying, impressionable civil servant; Davies, the shyly intrepid yachtsman driven by an uncompromising devotion to principle. The Riddle of the Sands is the work of a man whose experiences at once evoked and surpassed the gung-ho conventions of the late-Victorian adventure-story.

In 1903 the spy-thriller was only just beginning to establish itself as a marketable genre. What distinguished it from other forms of sensational fiction (detective-story, frontier-tale, historical romance, etc.) was its political agenda. During the early years of the century, the industrial and military rivalry between Britain and Germany intensified dramatically.1 It really did seem as though the two great European powers had locked themselves into a fight to the death for global hegemony, a point brought home to Carruthers when he gets hold of some German journals whose 'rancorous Anglophobia' is a chilling reminder of the threat facing his country (p. 224). One general

Paul Kennedy, The Rise of Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914 ( London: Allen and Unwin, 1980).


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