Erskine Childers: The Riddle of The Sands

First published: 1903

Book Review

This is the story of two English yachtsmen who sail about Germany's Friesian coastline spotting preparations for a German invasion of Britain. And, on account of the fact that it was first published in 1903, it's often referred to as the first modern thriller novel.

Most striking, initially, is Childers' Edwardian phraseology. He writes-

I have read of men who, when forced by their calling to live for long periods in utter solitude - save for a few black faces - have made it a rule to dress regularly for dinner in order to maintain their self-respect and prevent a relapse into barbarism.

This is Childers' opening sentence. And honestly, though not remotely a diatribe on the nature of savages, the book continues throughout in the style of a haughty, Edwardian Englishman's reflection.

For me personally, a constant part of Childers' satire is his main protagonist's angst at the lack of domestic servants throughout his lengthy ordeal. A typical reflection upon a dinner runs - No servants appeared. We waited upon ourselves. -

Since Erkine Childers himself was a formidable sailor, an accomplished soldier, an able scholar and something of a writer, in real life, he was clearly neither of the central characters in his book, though he possesses aspects of both of them. And I believe that his portrayal of Carruthers, his narrator, as something of a conceited buffoon, was intended as a swipe directly at the men of influence who surrounded Childers while he wrote.

The main character describes himself thusly- a man of condition and fashion, who knows the right people, belongs to the right clubs -

And of the story itself? It's dated. It's written in a style which owes far more to exactitude than to entertainment. Throughout all of its three hundred pages Childers plots, maps and charts the Friesian coastline. He gives us wind speeds and water depths. At times the reader gets the impression that Childers wants him to become an able sailor too. To be fair to Childers though, I'm sure he wrote with regard to who would read his story. And I suspect that today we'd prefer to sacrifice many of the nautical directions in favour of some more interesting plot developments.

So finally, my main recommendation with this story would be aimed at readers who want a better understanding of where British thriller writing developed from, because Childers' story is viewed as a prototype by so many literary critics. And in my own view it should be read and thought of as a starting point for modern, British thriller authors.

Review by Patrick Mackeown, September 2007

 

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