An excercise in patience; The Riddle of the Sands is set to a pace completely unlike that of most contemporary novels; and for a work of spy-thriller fiction, it focusses heavily upon the owrkaday activities of the two central characters, the almost-innocent, enthusiastic sailor Davies; and the book’s narrator, the urbane Carruthers, a minor official of the British Foreign Office, who condescends to join his old school friend on a sailing holiday, and gets rather more (and less) than he bargained for.
Being published in 1903, Childers’ work is a very interesting sketch of relations (and suspicions) between the Imperialist Britain and Germany; in their discussions on the prospect of war, Davies lays out the contemporary view of a man looking across the Channel at a burgeoning empire with fledgling naval capabilities, which is “a new thing with them, but it’s going strong and that Emperor of theirs is running it for all it’s worth. He’s a splendid chap, and anyone can see he’s right. They’ve got no colonies to speak of, and must have them, like us…The command of the sea is the thing nowadays, isn’t it?” The book is also credited with being part of the reason why the British Empire began to improve upon their naval defences pre-World War One. That fun fact is from Wiki, however, so take it with a pinch of sea salt.
The exhaustive detailing of their ‘holiday’ aboard the Dulcibella helped to establish the plausibility of the novel, and set the standard for many authors to follow in the spy thriller genre. The historical value of the novel for this reason, and its fantastic level of detail as regards the voyage along the Frisian coasts up towards the Baltic, make it worth reading. However, it fails to carry the reader forward at any significant pace; your own efforts to finish it will be the only means of propulsion.
The characters were genuine enough, though Carruthers’ cosmopolitan brattishness can wear thin. The eventual realization that the secret German military plans are directed at offence, not defence, fail to titillate a post-Wars reader, when the speculative fiction has long since become similar to historical fact. The ‘grand denouement’ is more than a few decades late in providing a thrill; my response upon learning the twist was more of a, “Well duh, Childers,” than a “By Jiminy!”
I would suggest that The Riddle of the Sands has greater value as a dry accoutn of small-yachting in the Baltic coastal region than it does as a spy thriller.
K.L gives The Riddle of the Sands 2 out of 5 handfuls of Frisian mud.