Review: The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Chilers

The Riddle of the Sands is something of a landmark in English fiction. Of its wider significance I will speak later. To start, however, here’s a brief summary of the book.

It concerns a young English Civil Servant, Carruthers, who out of the blue at the beginning of Autumn, one afternoon in the early years of the twentieth century, receives a telegram from an old acquaintance called Davies. Davies requests Carruthers’s company on his boat which is currently on the German coast of the Baltic Sea. Not having anything better to do, and despite his initial misgivings, Carruthers agrees to go and see Davies.

Initially Carruthers feels that his worst fears have come to pass. He hates Davies’s boat, feels like he’s wasting his time, and what’s more Davies seems to be acting rather strange and distant.

Tensions build until they finally come to a head, when Carruthers gets his friend to come clean about what’s on his mind and affecting his behaviour. It is then that Davies tells his tale and the story really starts.

Davies tells of a chance encounter when he was sailing his boat, the Dulcibella, along and around the German North Sea coast. There he met a German called Dollmann. One day when they were out sailing in bad weather, Dollmann said hat he would take Carruthers through a short cut among the coastal islands and islets, in order to take him to the nearest safe haven. Davies soon gets into trouble and loses sight of Dollmann’s boat, however, and he is convinced that Dollmann in fact was trying to get him killed through capsizing or being run aground.

Piecing things together for Carruthers’s benefit, Davies theorises that Dollmann wanted him out of the way because, as an Englishman, it would be dangerous for him to gain so much knowledge about how to safely navigate the German North Sea coast. Furhtermore, Davies’s belief that Dollmann wished him fatal harm at sea fuels the Englishman’s sense that something suspicious may be going on along the North Sea coast. When pressed on this, Davies admits to Carruthers that he fears there may be some kind of build up of forces or long term planning for a possible attack on the English coast. He even suggests (and remember that this book was published some eleven years before World War 1) that an all-out confrontation between the two nations may be a distinct possibility one day.

Gradually Carrathers starts to see things from Davies’s point of view, and the rest of the book becomes the account of how the two attempt to unravel the ‘riddle of the sands’, a title which can be taken on at least three levels: Who is Dollmann and what is he up to? What is the true nature of this unique and difficult-to navigate coastline? And is there any substance to Davies’s fears of a German naval build up in the area?

As a tale, Childers’s story is engaging and plausible, while as a piece of descriptive writing it brings to life this fascinating part of the world. Subtitled “A Record of Secret Service”, the book also has claim to being one of the very first of the modern spy stories. Apparently it was a favourite of John Buchan, and a close reading if Chapter One of the The Riddle of the Sands illustrates the clear general resemblance between Carruthers and Buchan’s famous hero Richard Hannay as that character describes himself in Chapter One of the great story The Thirty Nine Steps. Both are rather jaded and cynical young men-about-town going somewhat stale in London, and who reveal better aspects of their respective natures once pressed into vital- if wholly unexpected and unlooked for- work that turns out to be of national importance.

Childers’s book in my view still stands up in purely narrative and literary terms. Yet its significance goes far further. From its first publication, this was a book that changed minds and had significance: one could say even genuine political influence. In its description of the potential German threat to a British coast that was relatively weakly defended (at a time when Britannia still ruled the World’s waves, but to the relative neglect of its own shoreline) Childers’s book turned heads among the powers that be. It partly helped inspire the construction of new naval bases along the east coast as well as  the bolstering of the North Sea Fleet, all of which played an important part in naval engagements during World War One.

Yet arguably even more intriguing than the riddle posed by this evocative novel, is that which stands front and centre in Childers’s own life. Clearly this was a man who loved his country and its Empire so much that he wanted to warn people about what he perceived to be a threat on its own doorstep. And yet he ended his life embroiled in Irish Nationalist politics and executed in that country by the Free State in the early 20s.

Just riddle me that.