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

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?