Saturday, 3 October 2009

The Riddle Of The Sands

Just finished reading The Riddle Of The Sands by Erskine Childers, a wonderful espionage tale set in the first few years of the twentieth century, while Britain still had a vast Empire, and war had not yet coloured the way we think of Germany.

Presented as a factual account of events, it is told from the viewpoint of Carruthers, a lowly clerk at the Foreign Office who, being at something of a loose end, accepts an unexpected invitation to join an old acquaintance, Davies, who is yachting in the Baltic. The yacht is far from luxurious, but the two men renew the friendship forged during their time at Oxford and set out to navigate the coastline.

As time goes on, and they begin to explore the sands around the Frisian Islands, Carruthers and Davies are drawn into a dangerous mystery. Why are they being watched wherever they go? Who is the sinister Herr Dollmann and why did he try to run Davies aground? And what is happening on the Island of Memmert that they are not supposed to see?

It's an compelling story and the writing, though somewhat archaic in style, anchors it perfectly in its period.

There's an enjoyable film adaptation from 1979, starring Michael York and Simon MacCorkindale. It's beautifully shot, and notable for a rare performance where (for artistic reasons) Jenny Agutter kept her clothes on. Being already familiar with this film took nothing away from the book - and although they digress in some details, the heart and spirit of both versions are the same.

And one final thing about this remarkable story? Erskine Childers' book - dealing as it does with the German invasion of England - was published in 1903, more than a decade before the outbreak of the First World War. Whether foresight or coincidence, it certainly makes you think.


  1. This is one of those books I keep meaning to read. I love the cover and see from Amazon that a whole series of similar books like 39 Steps have been published using similar cover images.

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