The Riddle of the Sands, published in 1903 by Erskine Childers (rhymes with herskin gilders) is considered to be the first example of a spy novel. In addition to being a fine spy story the book is one of the best sailing stories around and relates the tale of two young Edwardian gentlemen engaged in a quest.

Childers uses his plot line as an excuse to create a stunning backdrop, which is the sea in general and specifically the shallow sands of the german coastline (which is entirely reminiscent of the Norfolk coast across the water in England). The book's hero (Davies) is a sailor who excels in using a shallow-draft vessel to negotiate the sometimes treacherous mix of sea and shifting sands which characterize so many coastlines around the world.

The Riddle of the Sands is crafted in the rich, formal language of prewar England, filled with such jewels as "'I did like her - very much.' our eyes met for a second, in which all was said that need be said, as between two of our phlegmatic race". and "through a medium blue with that translucent blue, fairy-faint and angel-pure, that you see in perfection only in the heart of ice ... to see the uncouth anchor stabbing the sand's soft bosom with one rusty fang, deaf and inert to Dulcibella's puny efforts to drag him from his prey.".

The book opens with a preface, nominally penned by a third party into whose hands a sensitive manuscript has been delivered. This note indicates that a nefarious plot has been brought to light and sets a tone of gentlemanly conduct in noting that certain affairs of the heart will be touched on only with a "light and hesitating pen". Most other parties referred to throughout are referred to obliquely as in "M-- inquired as to the contents".

The narrative opens with one Carruthers, a junior man in the Foreign Office in the midst of a funk due to his vacation plans having been sacrificed to work schedules. He receives a letter from one Davies, asking him to join him for a cruise in the Baltic. Carruthers (wondering how the undistinguished Davies can afford a Yacht) decides that as all of the fashionable holiday parties are ending for the season he may as well complete his martyrdom and purposes to go aid an associate who has asked for his help.

Running the errands that Davies has requested Carruthers begins to get hints that he's not in for a comfortable pleasure cruise. A bit of a dandy he's a put out at having to rub elbows with the lower class sellers of some marine gear Davies is in need of. He arrives by train to meet the Dulcibella expecting to find a substantial vessel (with crew) only to find himself wrestling his portmanteau stuffed with spiffy yachting clothes onto a smallish (8 ton) yawl (a converted lifeboat) which Davies has been managing single-handed.

The protagonists overcome their differences as Carruthers discovers the pleasures of doing the work of sailing. Carruthers is also learning that Davies has encountered some problems in his travels as they explore the tranquil Baltic. At a time when England is the preeminent world power these two upper crust protagonists discuss naval strategy, sea power and Germany's expanding influence as they explore places which have come under German control in recent decades.

Plot spoilers follow


Eventually Davies reveals that he suspects a former Englishman of turning spy for the Germans and (less willingly) alludes that he has formed a bond with the man's daughter (a like-minded young sailor). Carruthers delivers on Davies's expectations by providing insights due to his experience in the diplomatic corps; he agrees to extend his stay and they plan an extensive reconnaissance of the german north sea coast. Exiting the Baltic by way of the Elbe they are soon in Davies's favored cruising grounds, the sands of the western Frisian Islands.

From this point Childers brings Carruthers into a world of detailed coastal navigation. He learns how to read the water to tell a workable channel from a shoal and the practical skills of using the anchor to kedge off when grounded. Using these tactics Dulcibella is used to map the german coast and look for the evidence that indeed Germany is preparing some surprise to spring upon England.

In a couple of weeks of this, encompassing a series of events which only serve to heighten their suspicions, Davies and Carruthers eventually encounter their suspected traitor. After a tense conversation they commit themselves to discovering the suspected plot.

This leads them to the crux of the story, a tense navigation in thick fog where they outwit the spy and his German allies. Davies applies idiosyncratic but solid seamanship to put them where they must be to learn what the traitor is up to. Working time and tide to best advantage they pull of a sleight of hand appearing to be locked in harbor by the fog when actually they are miles away, finally beginning to answer the riddle.

From here the reader is carried through the logical steps of unwinding the details of the conspiracy they've now begun to understand. Davies and Carruthers strive to "scotch him" and "save the girl".

The chapters include:

  1. The Letter
  2. The 'Dulcibella'
  3. Davies
  4. Retrospect
  5. Wanted, a North Wind
  6. Schlei Fjord
  7. The Missing Page
  8. The Theory
  9. I Sign Articles
  10. His Chance
  11. The Pathfinders
  12. My Initiation
  13. The Meaning of our Work
  14. The First Night in the Islands
  15. Bensersiel
  16. Commander von Brüning
  17. Clearing the Air
  18. Imperial Escort
  19. The Rubicon
  20. The Little Drab Book
  21. Blindfold to Memmert
  22. The Quartette
  23. A Change of Tactics
  24. Finesse
  25. I Double Back
  26. The Seven Siels
  27. The Luck of the Stowaway
  28. We Achieve our Double Aim

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