Monday, April 11, 2011

The Riddle of the Sands: A Book Review...

Declared on its cover as the "first and best of spy stories", Erskine Childers' novel has a lot to live up to.

Fortunately, the author was a doer and not a watcher having taken part in the Boer War, sailed the Baltic, and helped the Irish Independence movement among other activities.

Mr. Childers would eventually be executed for his part in the Irish Independence movement but fortunately he did complete this novel before his death and in it he is able to convey all the intricacies of small boat sailing within the confines of a "spy" story.

The discovery of early preparations on behalf of German forces for the land invasion of England and their discovery by two young, former college chums is the force behind the action.  If you are used to "modern" novel pacing and expecting as much, you will be disappointed as roughly the first 1/2 to 2/3 of the book details the friends' voyage throughout the coastal North Sea.  There are no explosions, no spy devices, no nuclear threat of annihilation.

This book, crafted just after the turn of the 20th Century comes from a much simpler time in which the interactions between opposing forces are gentlemanly in nature despite their deadly seriousness.  While the language and descriptions of sailing held my attention throughout, the "spy" part of the novel left me wanting more.  Maybe I'm too used to modern spy/military stories but it felt at least here, that Childers would have been better off writing a novel surrounding sailing alone and left the military action to someone else.

Its not that his story is unbelievable--in fact it was likely closer to the truth than either German or English authorities would have liked, with even Winston Churchill taking notice of the tale and some using it as a propaganda piece with which to raise funds for English home defense.  Its just that to me, Childers' writing seems far more "excited" in describing the action of the little ship tacking back and forth to the wind and navigating treacherous sand flats than it does dealing with conspiratorial English traitors.

The Riddle of the Sands is well worth reading to see the beginnings of the modern "spy" novel and is wonderful seafaring yarn.  Its just that, for action, The Sum of All Fears (just using this as an example--not referring to it as a superior novel) this isn't.

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