The Riddle of the Sands

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The Riddle of the Sands
First edition
Author Erskine Childers
Language English
Genre Invasion novel,
Adventure novel,
Spy novel
Publisher Smith, Elder & Co
Publication date
May 1903
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
OCLC 3569143

The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service is a 1903 novel by Erskine Childers. The book, which enjoyed immense popularity in the years before World War I, is an early example of the espionage novel and was extremely influential in the genre of spy fiction. It has been made into feature-length films for both cinema and television.

The novel "owes a lot to the wonderful adventure novels of writers like Rider Haggard, that were a staple of Victorian Britain".[1] It was a spy novel that "established a formula that included a mass of verifiable detail, which gave authenticity to the story – the same ploy that would be used so well by John Buchan, Ian Fleming, John le Carré and many others."[1]

Plot summary

Carruthers, a minor official in the Foreign Office, is contacted by an acquaintance, Davies, asking him to join in a yachting holiday in the Baltic Sea. Carruthers agrees, as his other plans for a holiday have fallen through.

He arrives to find that Davies has a small sailing boat (the vessel is named Dulcibella, a reference to Childers's own sister of that name), not the comfortable crewed yacht that he expected. However Carruthers agrees to go on the trip and joins Davies in Flensburg on the Baltic, whence they head for the Frisian Islands, off the coast of Germany. Carruthers has to learn quickly how to sail the small boat.

Davies gradually reveals that he suspects that the Germans are undertaking something sinister in the German Frisian islands. This is based on his belief that he was nearly wrecked by a German yacht luring him into a shoal in rough weather during a previous trip. Davies is suspicious about what would motivate the Germans to try to kill him. Having failed to interest anyone in the government in the incident, he feels it is his patriotic duty to investigate further – hence the invitation to Carruthers.

Carruthers and Davies spend some time exploring the shallow tidal waters of the Frisian Islands, moving closer to the mysterious site where there is a rumoured secret treasure recovery project in progress on the island of Memmert. The two men discover that an expatriate Englishman, Dollmann, is involved in the recovery project. Carruthers realises that Davies is in love with Dollmann's daughter, Clara. Carruthers and Davies try to approach Memmert. They are warned away by a German Navy patrol boat, the Blitz, and its commander Von Bruning. This makes them all the more sure that there is something more than a treasure dig on the island.

Taking advantage of a thick fog, Davies navigates them covertly through the complicated sandbanks in a small boat to investigate the site. Carruthers investigates the island. He overhears Von Bruning and Dollmann discussing something more than treasure hunting, including cryptic references to "Chatham", "Seven" and "the tide serving". The pair return through the fog to the Dulcibella. There, they find Dollmann and Von Bruning have beaten them and are seemingly suspicious.

Von Bruning invites them to Dollmann's villa for a dinner, where he attempts to subtly cross-examine them to find out if they are British spies. Carruthers plays a dangerous game, admitting they are curious. But he convinces Von Bruning that he believes the cover story about treasure and merely wants to see the imaginary "wreck". Carruthers announces that the Foreign Office has recalled him to England. He heads off, then doubles back to follow Von Bruning and his men. He trails them to a port where they board a tugboat towing a barge. Carruthers sneaks aboard and hides, and the convoy heads to sea.

Carruthers finally puts the riddle together. The Germans are linking the canals and the railways, dredging passages through the shifting sands and hiding a fleet of tugs and barges. The only explanation is that they are going to secretly transport a powerful German army across the North Sea to invade Britain's east coast. He escapes after grounding the tugboat and rushes back to Davies. He finds him and explains how they must flee before the Germans come after them. They convince Dollmann and Clara to come with them to avoid Dollmann's being arrested by the Germans, who will think he has changed sides again. As they sail across the North Sea, Dollmann commits suicide by jumping overboard, presumably to avoid disgrace and probable arrest for treason.

An epilogue by the "editor" examines the details of a report prepared by Dollmann, outlining his plan for the invasion force. A postscript notes that the Royal Navy is finally taking countermeasures to intercept any German invasion fleet and urges haste.

Literary criticism

Childers's biographer Andrew Boyle noted: "For the next ten years Childers's book remained the most powerful contribution of any English writer to the debate on Britain's alleged military unpreparedness."[2] It was a notable influence on John Buchan, and on Ken Follett, who described it as "an open-air adventure thriller about two young men who stumble upon a German armada preparing to invade England."[3][4] Follett has also called it "the first modern thriller".[3]

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones listed The Riddle of the Sands as one of the ten classic spy novels, in The Guardian's best spy novel list.[5] Robert McCrum of The Observer included it in his list of the 100 greatest novels of all time.[6]

The Daily Telegraph has cited the book as the second best spy novel of all time, after Kipling's Kim.[7]

Historical context

It was one of the early invasion novels, "... a story with a purpose" in the author's own words, written from "a patriot's natural sense of duty", which predicted war with Germany and called for British preparedness.[8] The whole genre of "invasion novels" raised the public's awareness of the "potential threat" of Imperial Germany. Although the belief has grown that the book was responsible for the development of the naval base at Rosyth, the novel was published in May 1903, two months after the purchase of the land for the Rosyth naval base was announced in Parliament (5 March 1903) and some time after secret negotiations for the purchase had begun. Although Winston Churchill later credited the book as a major reason why the Admiralty had decided to establish the new naval bases, this seems unlikely. When war was declared he ordered the Director of Naval Intelligence to find Childers, whom he had met when the author was campaigning to represent a naval seat in Parliament, and employ him.[9][10] At the time Childers was writing Riddle he was also contributing to a factual book published by The Times in which he warned of outdated British army tactics in the event of "conflicts of the future".[11] He developed this theme in two further works he published in 1911: War and the Arme Blanche and German Influence on British Cavalry.[12]

The novel contains many realistic details based on Childers's own sailing trips along the East Frisia coast and large parts of his logbook entries from an 1897 Baltic cruise "appear almost unedited in the book."[1] The yacht Dulcibella in the novel is based upon Vixen, the boat Childers used for his exploration.[13] In August 1910, inspired by the work, two British amateur yachtsmen, Captain Bernard Trench RM and Lieutenant Vivian Brandon RN, undertook a sailing holiday along the same section of the Frisian coast, during which they collected information about German naval installations. The two men were sentenced to four years custody by a military court in Leipzig, but they were pardoned by the Emperor in 1913. They joined "Room 40", the intelligence and decoding section of the British Admiralty, on the outbreak of war.[14]

Film, television, and theatrical adaptations

The Riddle of the Sands (1979) is a film adaptation of the book, starring Michael York as Charles Carruthers and Simon MacCorkindale as Arthur Davies.[15]

In Germany, the novel was popularised by the TV movie Das Rätsel der Sandbank (1984), produced by the public television and radio station Radio Bremen, and starring Burghart Klaußner as Davies and Peter Sattmann as Carruthers.[16]


In 1998, nautical writer Sam Llewellyn wrote a continuation of the story named The Shadow in the Sands. This is subtitled "being an account of the cruise of the yacht Gloria in the Frisian Islands in April of 1903 and the Conclusion of the Events described by Erskine Childers."[17]

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Erskine Childers's log books". National Maritime Museum. Archived from the original on 2008-06-11.
  2. ^ Boyle (1977), p. 111.
  3. ^ a b Follett, Ken (2016). "The Art of Suspense". Ken Follett. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
  4. ^ Clark, Ignatius (1992). Voices Prophesying War, 1763–1984. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 142–143. ISBN 0-19-212302-5.
  5. ^ Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri (26 June 2013). "The top 10 classic spy novels". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
  6. ^ McCrum, Robert (12 October 2003). "The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
  7. ^ "What to Read: The Best Spy Novels of All Time". The Daily Telegraph.
  8. ^ Boyle (1977), pp. 108 & 140.
  9. ^ Knightley, Phillip. The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century. London: Pimlico. p. 17. ISBN 1-84413-091-6.
  10. ^ Boyle (1977), pp. 196–197.
  11. ^ Boyle (1977), pp. 129–130.
  12. ^ Boyle (1977), pp. 136–137.
  13. ^ Buchan, Alastair; McGreary, Jeremy (January 2006). "The Book and the Boat". Cruising World. Middletown, Rhode Island: World Publications. 32 (1): 86–91. ISSN 0098-3519.
  14. ^ Piper, Leonard (2007). Dangerous Waters. London, England: Continuum. pp. 105–107. ISBN 1-84725-020-3.
  15. ^ The Riddle of the Sands on IMDb (1979 version)
  16. ^ The Riddle of the Sands on IMDb (1987 version)
  17. ^ Llewellyn, Sam (1999). The Shadow in the Sands. London: Headline Feature. ISBN 978-0-747-26005-9.

External links

  • The Riddle of the Sands on In Our Time at the BBC
  • The Riddle of the Sands at Project Gutenberg
  • The Riddle of the Sands public domain audiobook at LibriVox
  • The Riddle of the Sands 1903, Robert Erskine Childers, ibiblio
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