The Riddle of the Sands

It’s the sort of book a chap throws down at the finish wondering, as if in post-coital frenzy, whether there’s another one like it? The year is 1903 and the sparring between Germany and Britain has just begun. Some Erskine Childers aficionados go so far as to say that this very novel kick started an escalation of the North Sea naval powers. 

Ensconced in the dull and dandyish life of a Foreign Office civil servant our narrator and protagonist, Charles Carruthers, is invited by an old university acquaintance, Arthur Davies, to shoot ducks in the Frisian islands of north Germany. There, the two young men gradually uncover a German plot for the invasion of Britain via the North Sea. Their progress is impeded by Carruthers barely coping in the austere conditions of Davies’ small yacht and by Davies’ feelings for the daughter of one of the German conspirators.

The story is simplicity itself, ornamented in minute and endless technical detail relating to small sailing yachts, dead reckoning through tides and fog and – Carruthers’ forte – the navigation of German society.

I can testify that, a century later, not much has changed in terms of a man’s life either as a minor Westminster functionary or as the captain of a small yacht. It feels modern in terms of the problems the duo must solve. Yet, running barefoot rings in plus fours around dark figures looming in Pickelhauben and Feldmäntel, cigarettes clenched priaptically under chevron moustaches as Fräulein Clara enters the decor, the scenery and register are Victorian (‘I say, Carruthers, It’s a rum business this spying thing!’). At the time Childers was writing, the dowager Queen had only been dead for a year – her coffin attended by her grandchildren, Kaiser Wilhelm II and the future George V.

A more compelling subplot accidentally emerges from Carruthers’ narrative, and it was this which really held my fascination. 

From the moment we encounter him, hunkered down over his charts in a Danish fjord, one is instantly more sympathetic to the character of Arthur Davies. We learn that the lonely mariner had to quit university for lack of funds and subsequently failed to make the grade he needed for a position he wanted in the Royal Navy. 

Aside from the incessant, verifiable, details with which Erskine constructs his intrigue (the author had sailed northern Germany), it is Davies’ flat character arc which makes this a book for boys in the dramatic sense. The patriotism of a man for a nation which had in some sense spat him out signals passive and uncompromising self belief to which all well adjusted men aspire. With his endless omelette cooking efforts to keep pencil pushing Carruthers enthused with their private investigation, gaining the inside track on his own outside terms, Davies becomes a foil worthy of Clarice Starling’s Hannibal Lecter, Tatiana Romanova’s James Bond, or wealthy socialists’ Donald Trump. 

It was oddly familiar to be kept routing by the ‘secondary character,’ but a slight confusion about whose story we were in until three quarters of the way through didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the whole book. Carruthers’ ‘character transformation,’ however appealing to Jungian and feminist theorists of the modern literary consensus, does not a hero make.

Often billed as the first modern spy thriller, the central strategic issue in The Riddle of the Sands is now a curiosity of naval history. But I suspect this novel may also be the first to leverage a particular Anglo-Teutonic romance which was made possible by the conditions of the 20th Century.

In this genre, the moral and dramatic stakes are risen by familiar gothic and kingly terms amid an otherwise degenerate and frivolous Europe. Perhaps the confluence of our royal houses has something to do with it but, in any case, the antagonism of this strange rivalry demands that good manners be returned as opposed to the shrugs, pouts and sluttiness which one can only expect of republican France. It is assumed that only highly educated upper class British would fraternise with Germans as equals, that they make better villains and, in corollary, stronger lovers. The duo’s respect for the German Empire is on full display throughout (‘by Jove! We want a man like this Kaiser, who works like a nigger for his country, and sees ahead’). Some kind of trepidation and aspiration flows back the other way, of course. Only the gasthause low bourgeoisie are described as ‘seething with rancorous Anglophobia.’

A 1979 film of the book stars, naturally, the floppy haired, Oxford educated Michael York – stock homme fatal of these oeuvres – who once starred in a film involving a German heist of the Magna Carta scroll from a Scottish castle by Zeppelin.

Yet Childers manages to rip his novel from the jaws of fey tragedy which hovers from the first page of the 20th Century Anglo-German romance thriller. That one side is definitely bad and the other definitely good goes hilariously undisputed and the love interest conflict is resolved with – [sub]plot spoiler – a final kidnapping of the girl who turns out to be English; her conspiring father a disgraced former Royal Navy captain.

And there the narrative ends, rather abruptly, with the three making it to Rotterdam and boarding a ferry back to Ramsgate. The ‘happily ever after’ is left to readers’ imagination.

I suppose that, for their use to the chancelleries, both men would have survived WWI. An editor’s postscript on reprinted editions might leave us with a final vignette of Arthur and Clara Davies dozing off in a Chatham bingo hall in 1950. “Charles Carruthers went on to have a successful career in the Admiralty. He never married.”