The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service by Erskine Childers

2014 Limelight Reviews
Classics, Mystery and Crime

Can a book start a war?

Good reasons for revisiting Erskine Childers’ espionage novel The Riddle of the Sands, first published in 1903 and still being reprinted:

  • The 2009 edition blurb claims The Riddle of the Sands “caused a sensation when it appeared in 1903 . . . So strong was its impact that one critic later accused its author of almost single-handedly starting a European war.”
  • The novel paved the way for the great “secret service” genre that includes John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, the James Bond juggernaut and John le Carré’s espionage bestsellers.
  • One of our oldest SMSA library members recommended Riddle recently as “still the best spy mystery story I’ve ever read.” She insists it’s a true story.
  • The Riddle of the Sands was one of the books kept in the houseboat library in Arthur Ransome’s classic Swallows and Amazons series for the young.
  • Though lacking Bond-style action, the book is well written, contains some great lines and still makes a good read today.

In 2014, we are commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the commencement of World War I, so it seems a good idea to look at the novel that may not exactly have started the “war to end all wars,” but at least stirred up a nation.

Set at the turn of the century during the period of the rising power of Germany, The Riddle of the Sands charts the adventures of two young Englishmen aboard a yacht, the Dulcibella. As they snoop around among the Frisian Islands and explore the northern coast of Germany with its sandbanks and network of canals, they begin to suspect a German plot involving an English traitor, and determine to uncover it. (The book includes maps.) 

One of the men is a natural yachtsman. The other, the narrator Carruthers from the Foreign Office, knows little about boats or the sea. Therein lies one of the novel’s great strengths. Yachties like The Riddle of the Sands because it is one of the greatest yachting yarns written, full of words like “bowsprit,” “kedging,” “windward” and “mizzen.” Those who feel ill at ease on small boats, on the other hand, identify with the discomfort and frustrations of the narrator as he slowly grows attached to the Dulcibella and learns to master his clumsiness, his ignorance, the terrible conditions and his fear.

Childers can spin a good story. He balances boating and ocean detail with interesting and uncertain relations between Carruthers and the Dulcibella, between the two young men themselves, between the yachtsmen and their mysterious quarry, and between one of them and a female love interest.

He also knows how to describe North Sea weather. When the narrator pops his head above deck to find the German commander standing on the quay, for example, one simple little line “It was raining in a raw air” captures the timbre of the moment with the crystalline clarity of a boat’s bell in a fog. Whether or not his book sparked off the Great War, a writer who can thrill you to the core with a simple, evocative line such as that deserves to be read.


The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service by Erskine Childers


Dereck Hornsey
Casual Library Officer (SMSA)