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.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before