Charles Carruthers is languishing in the crushing heat of a London summer when an old university chum named Davies throws him a lifeline, inviting him on a yachting expedition in the North Sea. It sounds like a lark, but Carruthers finds that the Dulcibella is hardly a yacht, and Davies’s trip is no pleasure cruise. Off the coast of the mysterious Frisian Islands, he has spotted a German fleet, supposedly engaged in hunting for buried treasure. Battling the elements, the two Englishmen find themselves surrounded by the German navy, which is using the fogs of the North Sea to disguise something monstrous—the Kaiser’s plot to launch a sneak attack on the British Isles.
Published more than a decade before World War I began, this groundbreaking spy novel inspired a young Winston Churchill to reinvigorate Britain’s naval defenses, and it remains just as stirring today.
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The Riddle of the Sands
By Erskine Childers
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
I have read of men who, when forced by their calling to live for long periods in utter solitude—save for a few black faces—have made it a rule to dress regularly for dinner in order to maintain their self-respect and prevent a relapse into barbarism. It was in some such spirit, with an added touch of self-consciousness, that, at seven o'clock in the evening of 23rd September in a recent year, I was making my evening toilet in my chambers in Pall Mall. I thought the date and the place justified the parallel; to my advantage even; for the obscure Burmese administrator might well be a man of blunted sensibilities and coarse fibre, and at least he is alone with nature, while I—well, a young man of condition and fashion, who knows the right people, belongs to the right clubs, has a safe, possibly a brilliant, future in the Foreign Office—may be excused for a sense of complacent martyrdom, when, with his keen appreciation of the social calendar, he is doomed to the outer solitude of London in September. I say 'martyrdom', but in fact the case was infinitely worse. For to feel oneself a martyr, as everybody knows, is a pleasurable thing, and the true tragedy of my position was that I had passed that stage. I had enjoyed what sweets it had to offer in ever dwindling degree since the middle of August, when ties were still fresh and sympathy abundant. I had been conscious that I was missed at Morven Lodge party. Lady Ashleigh herself had said so in the kindest possible manner, when she wrote to acknowledge the letter in which I explained, with an effectively austere reserve of language, that circumstances compelled me to remain at my office. 'We know how busy you must be just now', she wrote, 'and I do hope you won't overwork; we shall all miss you very much.' Friend after friend 'got away' to sport and fresh air, with promises to write and chaffing condolences, and as each deserted the sinking ship, I took a grim delight in my misery, positively almost enjoying the first week or two after my world had been finally dissipated to the four bracing winds of heaven.
I began to take a spurious interest in the remaining five millions, and wrote several clever letters in a vein of cheap satire, indirectly suggesting the pathos of my position, but indicating that I was broad-minded enough to find intellectual entertainment in the scenes, persons, and habits of London in the dead season. I even did rational things at the instigation of others. For, though I should have liked total isolation best, I, of course, found that there was a sediment of unfortunates like myself, who, unlike me, viewed the situation in a most prosaic light. There were river excursions, and so on, after office-hours; but I dislike the river at any time for its noisy vulgarity, and most of all at this season. So I dropped out of the fresh air brigade and declined H—'s offer to share a riverside cottage and run up to town in the mornings. I did spend one or two week-ends with the Catesbys in Kent; but I was not inconsolable when they let their house and went abroad, for I found that such partial compensations did not suit me. Neither did the taste for satirical observation last. A passing thirst, which I dare say many have shared, for adventures of the fascinating kind described in the New Arabian Nights led me on a few evenings into some shady haunts in Soho and farther eastward; but was finally quenched one sultry Saturday night after an hour's immersion in the reeking atmosphere of a low music-hall in Ratcliffe Highway, where I sat next a portly female who suffered from the heat, and at frequent intervals refreshed herself and an infant from a bottle of tepid stout.
By the first week in September I had abandoned all palliatives, and had settled into the dismal but dignified routine of office, club, and chambers. And now came the most cruel trial, for the hideous truth dawned on me that the world I found so indispensable could after all dispense with me. It was all very well for Lady Ashleigh to assure me that I was deeply missed; but a letter from F—, who was one of the party, written 'in haste, just starting to shoot', and coming as a tardy reply to one of my cleverest, made me aware that the house party had suffered little from my absence, and that few sighs were wasted on me, even in the quarter which I had assumed to have been discreetly alluded to by the underlined all in Lady Ashleigh's 'we shall all miss you'. A thrust which smarted more, if it bit less deeply, came from my cousin Nesta, who wrote: 'It's horrid for you to have to be baking in London now; but, after all, it must be a great pleasure to you' (malicious little wretch!) 'to have such interesting and important work to do.' Here was a nemesis for an innocent illusion I had been accustomed to foster in the minds of my relations and acquaintances, especially in the breasts of the trustful and admiring maidens whom I had taken down to dinner in the last two seasons; a fiction which I had almost reached the point of believing in myself. For the plain truth was that my work was neither interesting nor important, and consisted chiefly at present in smoking cigarettes, in saying that Mr So-and-So was away and would be back about 1st October, in being absent for lunch from twelve till two, and in my spare moments making précis of—let us say—the less confidential consular reports, and squeezing the results into cast-iron schedules. The reason of my detention was not a cloud on the international horizon—though I may say in passing that there was such a cloud—but a caprice on the part of a remote and mighty personage, the effect of which, ramifying downwards, had dislocated the carefully-laid holiday plans of the humble juniors, and in my own small case had upset the arrangement between myself and K—, who positively liked the dog-days in Whitehall.
Only one thing was needed to fill my cup of bitterness, and this it was that specially occupied me as I dressed for dinner this evening. Two days more in this dead and fermenting city and my slavery would be at an end. Yes, but—irony of ironies!—I had nowhere to go to! The Morven Lodge party was breaking up. A dreadful rumour as to an engagement which had been one of its accursed fruits tormented me with the fresh certainty that I had not been missed, and bred in me that most desolating brand of cynicism which is produced by defeat through insignificance. Invitations for a later date, which I had declined in July with a gratifying sense of being much in request, now rose up spectrally to taunt me. There was at least one which I could easily have revived, but neither in this case nor in any other had there been any renewal of pressure, and there are moments when the difference between proposing oneself and surrendering as a prize to one of several eagerly competing hostesses seems too crushing to be contemplated. My own people were at Aix for my father's gout; to join them was a pis aller whose banality was repellent. Besides, they would be leaving soon for our home in Yorkshire, and I was not a prophet in my own country. In short, I was at the extremity of depression.
The usual preliminary scuffle on the staircase prepared me for the knock and entry of Withers. (One of the things which had for some time ceased to amuse me was the laxity of manners, proper to the season, among the servants of the big block of chambers where I lived.) Withers demurely handed me a letter bearing a German post-mark and marked 'Urgent'. I had just finished dressing, and was collecting my money and gloves. A momentary thrill of curiosity broke in upon my depression as I sat down to open it. A corner on the reverse of the envelope bore the blotted legend: 'Very sorry, but there's one other thing—a pair of rigging screws from Carey and Neilson's, size 1-3/8, galvanized.' Here it is:
Flensburg, Schleswig-Holstein, 21st Sept.
'DEAR CARRUTHERS,—I daresay you'll be surprised at hearing from me, as it's ages since we met. It is more than likely, too, that what I'm going to suggest won't suit you, for I know nothing of your plans, and if you're in town at all you're probably just getting into harness again and can't get away. So I merely write on the offchance to ask if you would care to come out here and join me in a little yachting, and, I hope, duck shooting. I know you're keen on shooting, and I sort of remember that you have done some yachting too, though I rather forget about that. This part of the Baltic—the Schleswig fiords—is a splendid cruising-ground—A1 scenery—and there ought to be plenty of duck about soon, if it gets cold enough. I came out here via Holland and the Frisian Islands, starting early in August. My pals have had to leave me, and I'm badly in want of another, as I don't want to lay up yet for a bit. I needn't say how glad I should be if you could come. If you can, send me a wire to the P.O. here. Flushing and on by Hamburg will be your best route, I think.
I'm having a few repairs done here, and will have them ready sharp by the time your train arrives. Bring your gun and a good lot of No. 4's; and would you mind calling at Lancaster's and asking for mine, and bringing it too? Bring some oilskins. Better get the eleven-shilling sort, jacket and trousers—not the 'yachting' brand; and if you paint bring your gear. I know you speak German like a native, and that will be a great help. Forgive this hail of directions, but I've a sort of feeling that I'm in luck and that you'll come. Anyway, I hope you and the F.O. both flourish. Good-bye.
'Yours ever, ARTHUR H. DAVIES.
'Would you mind bringing me out a prismatic compass, and a pound of Raven Mixture.'
This letter marked an epoch for me; but I little suspected the fact as I crumpled it into my pocket and started languidly on the voie douloureuse which I nightly followed to the club. In Pall Mall there were no dignified greetings to be exchanged now with well-groomed acquaintances. The only people to be seen were some late stragglers from the park, with a perambulator and some hot and dusty children lagging fretfully behind; some rustic sightseers draining the last dregs of the daylight in an effort to make out from their guidebooks which of these reverend piles was which; a policeman and a builder's cart. Of course the club was a strange one, both of my own being closed for cleaning, a coincidence expressly planned by Providence for my inconvenience. The club which you are 'permitted to make use of' on these occasions always irritates with its strangeness and discomfort. The few occupants seem odd and oddly dressed, and you wonder how they got there. The particular weekly that you want is not taken in; the dinner is execrable, and the ventilation a farce. All these evils oppressed me to-night. And yet I was puzzled to find that somewhere within me there was a faint lightening of the spirits; causeless, as far as I could discover. It could not be Davies's letter. Yachting in the Baltic at the end of September! The very idea made one shudder. Cowes, with a pleasant party and hotels handy, was all very well. An August cruise on a steam yacht in French waters or the Highlands was all very well; but what kind of a yacht was this? It must be of a certain size to have got so far, but I thought I remembered enough of Davies's means to know that he had no money to waste on luxuries. That brought me to the man himself. I had known him at Oxford—not as one of my immediate set; but we were a sociable college, and I had seen a good deal of him, liking him for his physical energy combined with a certain simplicity and modesty, though, indeed, he had nothing to be conceited about; liked him, in fact, in the way that at that receptive period one likes many men whom one never keeps up with later. We had both gone down in the same year—three years ago now. I had gone to France and Germany for two years to learn the languages; he had failed for the Indian Civil, and then had gone into a solicitor's office. I had only seen him since at rare intervals, though I admitted to myself that for his part he had clung loyally to what ties of friendship there were between us. But the truth was that we had drifted apart from the nature of things. I had passed brilliantly into my profession, and on the few occasions I had met him since I made my triumphant début in society I had found nothing left in common between us. He seemed to know none of my friends, he dressed indifferently, and I thought him dull. I had always connected him with boats and the sea, but never with yachting, in the sense that I understood it. In college days he had nearly persuaded me into sharing a squalid week in some open boat he had picked up, and was going to sail among some dreary mud-flats somewhere on the east coast. There was nothing else, and the funereal function of dinner drifted on. But I found myself remembering at the entrée that I had recently heard, at second or third hand, of something else about him—exactly what I could not recall. When I reached the savoury, I had concluded, so far as I had centred my mind on it at all, that the whole thing was a culminating irony, as, indeed, was the savoury in its way. After the wreck of my pleasant plans and the fiasco of my martyrdom, to be asked as consolation to spend October freezing in the Baltic with an eccentric nonentity who bored me! Yet, as I smoked my cigar in the ghastly splendour of the empty smoking-room, the subject came up again. Was there anything in it? There were 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.
I pulled out the letter again, and ran down its impulsive staccato sentences, affecting to ignore what a gust of fresh air, high spirits, and good fellowship this flimsy bit of paper wafted into the jaded club-room. On reperusal, it was full of evil presage— 'A 1 scenery'—but what of equinoctial storms and October fogs? Every sane yachtsman was paying off his crew now. 'There ought to be duck'—vague, very vague. 'If it gets cold enough' ... cold and yachting seemed to be a gratuitously monstrous union. His pals had left him; why? 'Not the "yachting" brand'; and why not? As to the size, comfort, and crew of the yacht—all cheerfully ignored; so many maddening blanks. And, by the way, why in Heaven's name 'a prismatic compass'? I fingered a few magazines, played a game of fifty with a friendly old fogey, too importunate to be worth the labour of resisting, and went back to my chambers to bed, ignorant that a friendly Providence had come to my rescue; and, indeed, rather resenting any clumsy attempt at such friendliness.CHAPTER 2
That two days later I should be found pacing the deck of the Flushing steamer with a ticket for Hamburg in my pocket may seem a strange result, yet not so strange if you have divined my state of mind. You will guess, at any rate, that I was armed with the conviction that I was doing an act of obscure penance, rumours of which might call attention to my lot and perhaps awaken remorse in the right quarter, while it left me free to enjoy myself unobtrusively in the remote event of enjoyment being possible.
Excerpted from The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. Copyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. The Letter
2. The Dulcibella
5. Wanted, a North Wind
6. Schlei Fiord
7. The Missing Page
8. The Theory
9. I Sign Articles
10. His Chance
11. The Pathfinders
12. My Iniation
13. The Meaning of our Work
14. The First Night in the Islands
16. Commander von Bruning
17. Clearing the Air
18. Imperial Escort
19. The Rubicon
20. The Little Drab Book
21. Blindfold to Memmert
22. The Quartette
23. A Change of Tactics
25. I Double Back
26. The Seven Siels
27. The Luck of the Stowaway
28. We Achieve our Double Aim
Reading Group Guide
1. 1. Erskine Childers wrote this novel as a warning to England to look to their North Sea defenses (and it worked, inspiring a movement in England to improve military preparedness). How do you think this book’s unique inspiration informs its character?
2. 2. The novel features much technical and nautical detail (Childers drew on his own extensive expertise and travels in writing the book); does this aspect of the work draw you in as a reader? Do you feel that the work successfully balances this kind of detail against a broader narrative?
3. 3. Compare the characters of Carruthers and Davies; how are they alike and how do they differ; how would you describe their relationship? How does their evolving rapport play into the story this novel is telling?
4. 4. Discuss the villain Dollmann, and the villains of the story generally: do you find them powerful? Menacing? Convincing? Realistic? Do you think Childers was aiming for realism?
5. 5. It is often said that the genre of the British spy novel begins with this novel. Compare it to later espionage fiction: in what ways do you think it has made its influence felt?
6. 6. What, finally, is the riddle of the sands, and how do Carruthers and Davies solve it?
7. 7. Remarking on the cultural context of The Riddle of the Sands, critic Benny Green wrote that it “was perhaps the best of those Edwardian call-to-arms thrillers which acquired their tension from the British neurosis, real or imagined, regarding the possibility of some lesser breed without the law constituting a serious threat to their world dominance.” Do this kind of critical perspective on the novel and the story’s particular “tension” enhance your reading of it?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you are used to reading spy novels by modern authors such as Ken Follett, you will find "The Riddle of the Sands" a bit slow. It is interesting from an historical perspective because it was one of the first spy novels published, (second only to Kipling's "Kim", I understand) and because of the British characters' concern about the threat of war with Germany when the book was published, about 1910. The characters operate in German waters by sailing yacht, and there is much about boating, navigation, and sailing, so if you are a sailor, you might enjoy that aspect of the book. I thought the book was worth reading even if it was not spellbinding. Merton Munson
This book has been called the 'first modern thriller' and is one of the first spy novels that uses masses of verifiable information and real locations, a style later used to great effect by some modern day giants of the thriller genre such as John Buchan, John le Carre and Ian Fleming (though Erskine Childers doesn't have quite as many women, cocktails or gunfights as Fleming).Anyway ... enough of the "wikipedia" introduction, though there is a reason for it. Wikipedia does mention that this book is one of the early 'Invasion Novels', a term I had not heard of before, a series of books published between 1871 and the time of World War 1 that all had in common England being invaded (often by Germany or a Germany thinly disguised as an 'un-named enemy'). Apparently this literary craze for tales of hypothetical invasions helped to shape politics, national policies and even the public's perceptions! In fact to continue the plagiarising it's also claimed that Winston Churchill credited Riddle of the Sands with the establishment of new naval bases to counter the invasion Erskine Childers wrote about. So you're not just reading a ripping yarn but also a piece of English naval history in the making.The story is about two friends sailing around the German coast, they discover something mysterious which piques their curiosity and, when they investigate, discover plans for a sea invasion of England. It is as much a story for sailors or people who enjoy reading about sailing (a sort of adult reminder of what it was like to read Swallows and Amazons perhaps), as there is a lot of nautical information, as it is a thriller. Though please do not let this put anyone off, the nautical side is not overwhelming and is so well written that you find yourself wishing to hire a boat and go out yourself to ride the high seas ... I've read this book a couple of times now and would still happily read it a third, the characters are well drawn and the plot is intriguing (even more so when you consider it could have actually happened).
Childers seems to have had several agendas besides writing an entertaining adventure story: to write about messing about in small yachts, and to wake up England to the impending German threat. There were times, early in the book, where I wondered if I should continue. If I wasn't so interested in the genre partly inspired by this book I might not have.The novel is rather slow through much of the first half, getting by, to the extent that it does, with some mild humour derived from the heroes' personality clash. You could learn a few fundamental truths about how entertaining stories work by observing what went wrong here: the girl doesn't appear until half-way through, and then disappears for most of the rest of the story; the story is dependent on laboriously explained technicalities of tides, depths and geography, frequently resorting to 'look at the chart on page X' to explain what's going on; and the villains appear quite late in the story. It's not all bad, though. The details of small yachting are interesting, up to a point; there's an exciting 'race against time while navigating in the dark' sequence which I liked a lot; and the scenes where the heroes and villains subtly try to sound each other out without letting on how much they know about each other are very well done, easily the highlights of the novel.
One on level very boring, as little happens, certainly by modern spy thriller standards. But it is enjoyable enough once you relax into its stately rhythms and allow yourself to be drawn into a very specific world, namely sailing around the shallows of the German North Sea coast at the turn of the 20th century. The ultimate pay-off, however,is far too mild for my, perhaps too modern tastes (and is revealed in the cover blurb anyway).
I read this as book more as a chore than anything else - a chance to read the father of modern spy thrillers. It is overlong and requires/assumes a knowledge of sailing few landlubbers will comprehend. The language and attitudes reflect the early twentieth century in which it was written that seem very outmoded to us now. There is a certain something about this, though. The technical sailing descriptions and talk do push us into the time and place and the suspenseful lack of action and lack of outright villainy do keep us guessing about who is doing what, when and to whom.
Meanders. Slow but otherwise interesting mostly sailing story with a little bit of espionage thrown in. Nowadays its probably of more interest fro its insights into 1900s life.Two young chaps (ie in their mid to late 20s) set off in a cramped 7m "yacht" (ie dingy) to sail around the sands and bays of the north german coastline - as it then was. On the way they bump (not literally) inot a few characters, whom they seem to see more often than chance would allow. Eventually their suspiciens are raised, (and with the lure of a beautiful daughter) they make an effort to find out more.All seems a bit stodgy. I'm unconvinced by either of the chaps as leading characters, nothign much really happens to them. There's a lot of tedious details about mudflats tidal sandbars and references to maps that I couldn'tbe bothered to look at. As an idea it was sort of impressive. I have no idea now, if Germany ever did have plans to invade england through the details specified, but it didn't seem an unreasonable proposition. Of historic interest only really, but readable enough.
This classic adventure story with a strong nautical aspect was good in the parts where they were spying on the bad guys, but a lot of it is full of technical details about sailing and geography. It was hard for me to get into and follow that aspect of it so this was a struggle for me to read at times. It got more interesting when a love interest and a direct conflict with the villian occured toward the end of the book but it takes a lot of patience to get to that part.
The Riddle of the SandsErskine ChildersFebruary 28, 2011A Folio Edition. Written in 1903, at a time of tension between Britain and Germany. The story is a description of sailing journeys along Jutland and the Baltic, unraveling the mystery of suspicious activity of German spies and naval vessels, and ultimately discovering a plot to invade Britain using barges launched in secret from multiple small esturaries. The novel is a very good sailing yarn, written obviously by someone with great knowledge of small boat sailing. It is interesting that the author ended up hanged for carrying weapons during the Irish revolution.
This novel, published in 1903, is of some literary and historical significance. It is generally regarded as the first spy novel establishing a template where the writer would produce verisimilitude by undertaking detailed research and setting out out the fruits of his labour in the book. More importantly, the novel was a significant propaganda tool for those in England who saw the rising Germany as a potential invader. The resulting naval arms race between the two countries was one of the causes of the First World War. Unfortunately, I found the book a bit of a struggle after the first hundred pages. I've never got on very well with books set on the sea - naval jargon seems to just float over my head. The plot is very much dependent on the reader playing close attention to the navigation of the yacht sailed by the two heroes around the channels and sand banks of Friesland. To do so, one has the carefully check the maps provided at the beginning of the book regularly. Unfortunately my edition of the book had terrible reproductions of the maps which made them virtually impossible to follow.When not at sea, I enjoyed the crisp narration and entertaining dialogue but being unable to properly understand the plot made reading the novel something of a chore.
Watched in anger but did nothing.
Stared in interest then nodded and ran back.
StormStar hissed, quickly picking up the kitten, running back to camp.