Erskine Childers: The Riddle of the Sands

The Riddle of the SandsThe Riddle of the Sands
Erskine Childers
First published in the UK by Smith, Elder and Co., 1903
This edition Pocket Penguin Classics (Boy’s Own Books), 2007
ISBN: 9780141031279
352 pages

I’d made a couple of failed attempts at reading Riddle previously, finding the nautical stuff not to my taste, but decided to have another go at it after finishing The Thirty-Nine Steps.

This edition is from a 2007 Penguin Classics collection of Boy’s Own Stories. I like the front cover, but I’ve got to say, of all the spoilers I’ve seen, the back takes some beating. Childers takes 307 pages to reveal his big surprise; the clueless blurb writer gets there in 2 paragraphs. Also, the quality of the maps is nowhere near good enough (better ones are on Project Gutenburg) – and they are unhelpfully cropped. The text mentions Map A, Chart B etc. but Penguin’s designers managed to chop off the titles! Tsk.

Riddle opens with our hero, Carruthers, trapped in town over the summer holidays, compelled by his work at the Foreign Office to miss out on the shooting parties and other entertainments enjoyed by wealthy young gents. The prose is reminiscent of Jerome K. Jerome.

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.

When he is finally free to go on leave, he is dismayed when an offer to join his friend – more like acquaintance – Davies on a yachting tour of the Baltic is the only recreational avenue left open to him. He opts to go, but travels to Europe trailing an atmosphere of martyrdom and loaded with obscure pieces of yachting equipment.

Arriving in the Baltic, Carruthers is expecting ‘cool white ducks or neat blue serge‘ and blonde wood decking; he finds oily jumpers and a grubby little two-berth boat with a dripping ceiling. However he resolves to make the best of a bad thing and soon begins to genuinely enjoy the simple life aboard the Dulcibella.

His chum Davies is a boating enthusiast, a simple soul who delights in navigation and regards the shore as an inconvenience. He is an honest chap and no hand at secrecy, so Carruthers soon realises he is holding something back, but assumes it is something innocent such as a reluctance to speak of some embarrassing yachting incident.

However, Davies has a more serious secret: an ulterior motive for inviting Carruthers. Earlier in his journey – whilst exploring the difficult-to-navigate sandy channels of the Frisian Islands – he encountered a German yachtsman called Dollmann. Davies is convinced that Dollmann tried to kill him by leading him up a dangerous channel in a gale, and has further deduced that Dollmann is up to something sinister – in fact, is probably a German agent who believed Davies was a rival British spy.

Davies and Carruthers agree to turn amateur secret agents, travelling back to the Frisian Islands to find out what Dollmann was so keen to hide.

The Islands, or rather the waters around them, are splendidly described. The sea is very shallow, and only small boats can navigate the maze of sand and gravel without grounding (and actually, grounding is a regular occurrence even for the little Dulcibella. Here, Carruthers reviews Davies’ log:

a brisker tone pervaded the entries, which became progressively fuller as the writer cruised on the Frisian coast. He was clearly in better spirits, for here and there were quaint and laboured efforts to describe nature out of material which, as far as I could judge, was repellent enough to discourage the most brilliant and observant of writers; with an occasional note of a visit on shore, generally reached by a walk of half a mile over sand, and of talks with shop people and fishermen. But such lighter relief was rare. The bulk dealt with channels and shoals with weird and depressing names, with the centre-plate, the sails, and the wind, buoys and ‘booms’, tides and ‘berths’ for the night. ‘Kedging off’ appeared to be a frequent diversion; ‘running aground’ was of almost daily occurrence.

The Frisian island of Nordeney. If you look closely at the sea you can make out the deeper channels between the sands. Picture from www.hotel-friese.de

The Frisian island of Nordeney. If you look closely at the sea you can make out the deeper channels between the sands. Picture from http://www.hotel-friese.de

Back in the sands, Davies and Carruthers begin to unpick the riddle. There’s no real need to continue if you have read the back cover, but anyway…

Riddle is nothing like The Thirty-Nine Steps. I suspect I am not alone in mentally bracketing the two books together, but they are really are dissimilar.

First, the politics are much less personal. Britain and Germany are two admirable Empires going about their business, and all’s fair in love and war. Davies openly admires the German Emperor’s vision and commitment to large-scale engineering projects.

For two days we travelled slowly up the mighty waterway that is the strategic link between the two seas of Germany. Broad and straight, massively embanked, lit by electricity at night till it is lighter than many a great London street; traversed by great war vessels, rich merchantmen, and humble coasters alike, it is a symbol of the new and mighty force which, controlled by the genius of statesmen and engineers, is thrusting the empire irresistibly forward to the goal of maritime greatness.
‘Isn’t it splendid?’ said Davies. ‘He’s a fine fellow, that emperor.’

Second, the heroes of Riddle are rather more nuanced. They take time to get to know each other, and there seems a lot more to know about them. Davies is a boating genius but lacks confidence in his own ability in every other field of endeavour. Carruthers is more subtle, a more natural spy, but perhaps believes he is more shallow than events prove.

Third, there is a love interest. The love story is quite touching (the unsophisticated Davies ties himself in knots) but looks impossible.

So there is a lot to recommend Riddle. But being honest, I found much of the book incomprehensible, with the meaning hidden behind naval technicalities and the need to refer to the poorly reproduced charts at the front. I ended up skimming a lot. I understood the final explanation of what has been going on, but not all the deductive steps that get us there.

Equally, a lot of the apparently admirable feats of navigation passed me by. There is however one striking chapter in which Davies and Carruthers row all night through a pea-soup fog, navigating purely by depth soundings.

I found the fog bemusing, lost all idea of time and space, and felt like a senseless marionette kicking and jerking to a mad music without tune or time. The misty form of Davies as he sat with his right arm swinging rhythmically forward and back, was a clockwork figure as mad as myself, but didactic and gibbering in his madness. Then the boat-hook he wielded with a circular sweep began to take grotesque shapes in my heated fancy; now it was the antenna of a groping insect, now the crank of a cripple’s self-propelled perambulator, now the alpenstock of a lunatic mountaineer, who sits in his chair and climbs and climbs to some phantom ‘watershed’.

Would I recommend Riddle to a modern reader? Not whole-heartedly, if I’m honest. The good bits are very good, but the boating content is for enthusiasts only.

I am entering Riddle in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Murder on the High Seas category. Although the murder is only attempted.

Final destination: Back to the library.

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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11 Responses to Erskine Childers: The Riddle of the Sands

  1. Rich – Thanks for a thorough and thoughtful review. I know what you mean about novels that are heavy on certain kinds of information and this definitely sounds like one of them. Still, I do like the idea of the island setting and the mystery is appealing. I may give this a go.

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  2. I read this one so long ago that I can barely remember it to be honest (it;s been at least 30 years) but I too am not a fan of nautical tales either usually, which is probably why I’ve never gone back to it. Really enjoyed the review though Rich – well done mate.

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  7. Lois says:

    I enjoyed your review! I’m interested in the book because my father knew the original skipper who had taken Childers on the spy mission that he based his book on. The old man gave my father the clock which had been on the original little boat they used.

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  8. Terry Dupuis says:

    I’m a sailor, and I love Childers’ generous use of nautical terms. Sometimes they’re not clear at first, though – eg, the center “plate” instead of “board,” to which name he switches later in the story. The prose is pretty dense, with many more complex words than seem to be in general use now. And common English terms, such as “detour,” are all in italics, with the French accents (eg, détour, café, rôle, etc). One can clearly see how our language has changed in the past 100 years. A great story – has me riveted. (a “page-turner”).

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