Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review: THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS by Erskine Childers

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1903

Genre: spy, thriller, adventure

Topics: sailing, espionage, Germanic horde


Carruthers is a bourgeois suit with a desultory job in London with the Foreign Office. He's feeling sorry for himself because he can't enjoy a house party with his friends, when he receives a telegram from a long-forgotten college acquaintance, Davies, inviting Carruthers to join him on his yacht. Carruthers' immediate reaction is that yachting in the Baltic at the end of September sounds like a HORRIBLE idea and he would rather choke; but a few days later, he finds himself on vacation and headed off to meet Davies, towing along a completely random collection of oddly specific items that Davies requested.

When he first arrives, Carruthers' instinct that this trip was a terrible idea seems confirmed. But he soon chills out, only to find Davies invited him to go sailing for a reason: he believes a German spy attempted to kill him in the Frisian Islands, and he needs a partner to help him figure out what the man wanted to hide.

If you picked up this book based purely on the title, you'd probably expect Riddle of the Sands to be some sort of adventure novel or archaeological mystery set in Egypt. You'd be wrong! The "sands" referred to in the title are actually a collection of sandbanks near the Frisian Islands, which are relatively uncharted and difficult to navigate. On board a tiny boat in the middle of a bunch of barren sand banks doesn't sound like the most interesting setting in the world, but the sense of isolation and difficulty Carruthers and Davies face really heightens the tension of the story. It works!

There is a lot of sailing jargon in this novel, which can be a bit difficult for those of us who don't know a jib from a forecastle (*raises hand*), but that's easily overcome because the characters are so awesome. Carruthers, our narrator and protagonist, doesn't know a thing about sailing (even though the author, Erskine Childers, clearly does), and he's so funny it's hard not to enjoy him. He's extremely fussy and a little spoiled, but underneath all his posturing and complaining he's good-hearted. If Karl from An Idiot Abroad was a Victorian gentleman, he'd be pretty similar to Carruthers.

Davies, meanwhile, is a weird combination of a bloke and a fanatic. He really only cares about one thing: sailing. Everything else tends to fall by wayside, and around people who aren't sea-worthy he's awkward, just because he has no idea what to talk about. But he's also basically a good guy, and not as dense as he first seems.

The main thing that I didn't like about Riddle of the Sands was that there were hardly any female characters. I'm a woman; I like to read books with women in them, what can I say. There was one lone female character in this story: the daughter of the German spy. But she didn't do anything; her role in the story was mainly to quell any suspicions that might crop up over Davies' heterosexuality. Or lack thereof.

Aside from that, though, as a espionage thriller this novel is pretty top-notch. Childers knew what he was talking about and put a lot of thought into what role an area like the Frisian Islands might serve in a military conflict between Germany and England, and it shows. Unlike many thrillers, Riddle of the Sands doesn't feel fantastical at all, and I'm not surprised it inspired generations of novelists as well as real-world policy enacted by politicians and military peeps.

I first head about this novel on Evangeline Holland's and Melody B's list of Downton Abbey-era fiction at Edwardian Promenade. I highly recommend you check it out!