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A Yachting Story, with a Purpose
Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands

In 1903, Erskine Childers did something profound: he wrote the world’s first great seagoing spy thriller. But The Riddle of the Sands opens so quietly that a reader might think that Childers himself didn’t know what he was creating.

As the novel begins, it is late September, and its protagonist – who goes by the name Carruthers to conceal his true identity – is stuck in London. It’s an especially lonely season, he tells us. His friends (for what they’re worth) are on holiday, and due to “a caprice on the part of a remote and mighty personage,” he is left at his desk in the Foreign Office to do work that


consisted chiefly…in smoking cigarettes, in saying that Mr So-and-So was away and would be back October 1st, in being absent for lunch from twelve till two, and in my spare moments making précis – let us say – the less confidential consular reports, and squeezing the results into cast-iron schedules.


Unfortunately, while he is slated to take a holiday, he has nowhere to go. He is, he tells us, “at the extremity of depression.” Frankly, Carruthers is so comically moody that the first chapter reads a bit like the opening to an especially cranky Jerome K. Jerome novel. (Two Men in a Yacht, anyone?)

Soon, though, a letter arrives that changes his plans – and the expected course of the book – profoundly. A university friend – whom Carruthers calls Davies to protect his true identity – has invited him on a yachting holiday in the Baltic. Of course, Carruthers finds many things to criticize in the offer, but as he tells himself, “There was certainly no alternatives at hand. And to bury myself in the Baltic at this unearthly time of year had at least a smack of tragic thoroughness about it.”

Naturally, the yacht turns out to be a tiny, bedraggled affair, and the neat yachtsman’s outfit that Carruthers has brought is absurdly out of place. Looking around his quarters, Carruthers reflects back on earlier yacht outings:


Hazily there floated through my mind my last embarkation on a yacht; my faultless attire, the trim gig and obsequious sailors, the accommodation ladder flashing with varnish and brass in the August sun; the orderly, snowy decks and basket chairs under the awning aft. What a contrast with this sordid midnight scramble, over damp meat and littered packing-cases! The bitterest touch of all was a growing sense of inferiority and ignorance which I had never before been allowed to feel in my experience of yachts.


Despite our natural tendency to project a novelist’s perspective onto his protagonist, it’s actually Davies that Childers more closely resembles, at least when it comes to seafaring skills. And the reading experience gains immeasurably by it because Childers draws on his own seagoing experiences to construct a yachting adventure that convinces even sea-hardened readers that they’re reading the real thing. Here, for example, he describes a particularly bumpy passage through storms:


Every loose article in the boat became audibly restless. Cans clinked, cupboards rattled, lockers uttered hollow groans. Small things sidled out of dark hiding-places, and danced grotesque drunken figures on the floor, like goblins in a haunted glade. The mast whined dolorously at every heel, and the centre-board hiccoughed and choked.


In time, Carruthers discovers Davies isn’t as carefree as he seems, and in the process of sizing up a yachtsman Davies swears is a spy, the two stumble onto a German plot to invade England’s coastline. While Childers approaches this discovery slowly, the story quickly picks up speed once it’s revealed. And the German plot proved so convincing that the British government took note.

As realistic as the German plot is, though, at least some of the novel’s believability lies in Childers’s understated approach to the genre. It was not, he wrote to a friend, particularly easy to create.


It is a yachting story, with a purpose, suggested by a cruise I once took in German Waters. I discover a scheme of invasion directed against England. I find it horribly difficult, as being in the nature of a detective story, there is no sensation, only what is meant to be convincing fact. I was weak enough to ‘spatchcock’ a girl into it and now find her a horrible nuisance.


The notion of writing a thriller whose voice is factually convincing and largely lacking sensationalism is easily accepted by contemporary readers, though it flummoxed a few reviewers when The Riddle of the Sands first appeared. (The Scotsman’s reviewer even questioned its genre, writing, “One hesitates to class this book as fiction.”) Nor, sadly, are we surprised today to find a girl ‘spatchcocked’ into a thriller.

The Riddle of the Sands was to be Childers’s only novel. He served as a clerk in the House of Commons until 1910, and nine years later, he moved to Dublin, where he avidly supported the Irish Home Rule movement. The involvement proved to be short-lived, though. In 1922, Childers was court-martialed by the Irish Provisional Government for carrying a pistol given to him by Michael Collins, and he was executed by firing squad a week later.

The political pamphlets he wrote have long since been forgotten, but The Riddle of the Sands remains a superbly compelling read.

—Review by Doug Childers

Posted September 1, 2005





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