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THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS by Erskine Childers (1903)

by Gavin Griffiths

All you need to know about the books you meant to read

Plot: Carruthers is a politically disengaged civil servant who enjoys mixing with the upper crust. He narrates this tale of espionage that harps on British fears of a German invasion. Receiving an invitation from an old university acquaintance to shoot duck in the Baltic, Carruthers decides to accept. But when he arrives in Holland, neither Davies nor his boat (the Dulcibella) come up to scratch: both seem old-fashioned, scruffy and awkward to manage. Davies, though friendly, remains secretive. There is more to the duck hunt than meets Carruthers's jaundiced eye. Davies hopes to retrace his previous voyage around the sands of the Frisian Islands, when he had been deliberately run aground, and almost killed, by Dollman, an English salvage operator. Davies suspects that Dollman works for the Germans. A further complication is Davies's budding love for Dollman's daughter, Clara. Carruthers learns to respect his companion. Together they find Dollman and discover a large invasion force of German ships. They witness a battle-dress rehearsal, attended by the Kaiser himself. The attempt to force Dollman to return to England fails. He commits suicide, jumping into the sea with a pair of heavy boots. Davies and Clara are united. Germany's plans are revealed to the British Government. Carruthers bows out, tetchily informing the reader: "Our personal history is of no concern to the outside world."

Theme: The image of the shifting sands pervades the book: personally and politically, nothing is as it seems. Carruthers learns that the appearance of a person or of a boat is no guide to their functional value. Britain imagines herself top nation in Europe. In reality, like the unreformed Carruthers, the nation is idle and complacent. By contrast, Germany is virile and purposeful.

Style: The chill seascape of the Baltic coast is etched with needle- point precision.

Chief strengths: Childers's sense of fair play ensures his disinterested treatment of Germany. The country's energetic economic growth is bound to force a clash with Britain; Germans are portrayed as motivated rather than ruthless. And it's refreshing to read a book about the sea uncluttered with metaphysical symbols (no albatrosses).

Chief weakness: Clara, the love interest, was suggested by the publisher. Childers's characterisation of her has all the spontaneity you'd expect: she is ''a flutter of lace and cambric''. The most convincing female creation is the Dulcibella.

What they thought of it then: A best-seller. Childers turned from fictional prose to the functional prose of political pamphleteering. This is the logical result of his novel's theoretical position.

What we think of it now: As university departments continue to flirt with sociology, so the interest in sub-genres expands. Childers, Haggard and Buchan are now fit for academic study: their lack of political correctness provokes curiosity.

Responsible for: Establishing the spy novel and encouraging the Admiralty to strengthen British defences in the North Sea.