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The Riddle of the Sands

September 26, 2009

The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers, is a spy novel from 1903 about two Englishmen who know they’ve stumbled upon some kind of secret regarding Germany’s naval plans, but aren’t quite sure what it is.

Carruthers, the narrator, is a clerk in the Foreign Office. As the book begins, he’s stranded in London after the social season has ended, and he’s pretty bitter about it. His vacation comes too late to join any of the house parties to which he’s been invited, so he ends up accepting a dubious-sounding invitation from Davies, an acquaintance from college who is yachting in the Baltic. When he arrives, Carruthers is shocked to find that Davies’ yacht isn’t shiny and adorned with lots of brass fittings. Also, although he went to some effort to find a bunch of things Davies asked for — a stove, rigging screws, a prismatic compass — Davies says he probably won’t need them, and Carruthers comes to suspect that Davies only asked for them so that he could indulge his passion for throwing things overboard.

The Dulcibella is tiny and dirty, and Davies has no crew, and is weirdly casual about a number of things Carruthers expects to see taken seriously. Also, he begins to suspect that Davies had some ulterior motive in inviting him. He did, and eventually he explains: He recently encountered a yacht called the Medusa, captained by a German gentleman named Dollmann. Except that Davies sort of suspected Dollmann to be English, and then Dollmann led Davies into an area that ought to have been impossible for him to navigate, in a storm, and abandoned him there. Also, Davies sort of fell in love with Dollmann’s daughter, Clara. The former facts make Davies certain that Dollmann is a spy for the Germans, while the latter makes him reluctant to say anything about it.

With almost no information but that Dollmann wanted Davies out of the way, the pair begin to investigate. Davies is convinced that the secret has to do with the navigation of the numerous tiny channels on the coast of East Friesland, and he sort of turns out to be right. There’s a lot of highly technical nautical stuff that’s pretty hard to understand (especially if you grudge being referred to a map every chapter or so — and I do), a charming German Naval officer named Von Brüning, and a really wonderfully tense sequence involving a race against time in a rowboat in the fog.

The whole book is kind of moody and atmospheric, but at the same time it’s sensible, and not without a sense of humor. The main characters are just different enough from the typical adventure-novel hero to be interesting: Davies has all the expertise, and gets the girl at the end, but he sees things in black and white, and frequently misunderstands or resents Carruthers’ cleverer plans. Carruthers becomes a competent sailor, but never an enthusiastic one, and the two of them never really have each others’ complete confidence. Davies is reticent and resentful whenever anything comes up involving Clara Dollmann, and Carruthers constantly edits himself in conversation with Davies in order to avoid conflict.

I also found the attitude they take towards Germany really interesting, because while both Carruthers and Davies suspect that England and Germany may go to war, it’s clear that it was written some time before WWI (I didn’t check the publication date until I finished reading) because of the way they refer to Germany as a worthy opponent, and the way Childers allows it to be a country in it’s own right, with it’s own goals and plans and point of view. Germany is never a generic enemy, and the only person Davies and Carruthers hate and feel no respect for is Dollmann, the English traitor. It’s just a really cool book, providing everything a spy novel needs without being formulaic, and I’m glad I stopped putting off reading it.

Also, I think this is one of the books I chose for that Guardian challenge thing? I forget. The fact that I already have an Erskine Childers tag would seem to indicate that it is.

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