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The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Erskine Childers

Childers' lone masterpiece, "The Riddle of the Sands", considered the first modern spy thriller, is recognisable as the brilliant forerunner of the realism of Graham Greene and John le Carre. Its unique flavour comes from its fine characterization, … see full wiki

Author: Erskine Childers
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Books
1 review about The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret...

I say, Carruthers, well done old chap

  • Jul 11, 2009
In deciding whether to read this novel, there are some things you should know:

Firstly, it is beautifully written. It is a classic piece of prose literature. Long descriptive passages evoke a wonderful atmosphere and sense of place. The characterization is sharp and accurate, and the dialogue is convincing.

Secondly, this is not an action-packed spy thriller. The story unfolds slowly and is somewhat linear, without the shock twists and turns that would be expected from a contemporary spy story. Having said that, you are better reading the book without knowing exactly what the answer to the 'riddle' is. Many of the reviews here on Amazon contain the spoiler and the blurb on the back of the Penguin Red Classics edition has it too. You have been warned.

Next, there is a lot about boats and the sea. If you are any kind of boat enthusiast, you will love this book. If you are not, or are positively averse to the ocean, then you will find the lengthy descriptions of tacking and sounding, reefing and kedging, to be rather wearisome. This is essentially the adventures of two Englishmen in a boat.

The opening chapters are extremely funny at times, as the hero discovers that his yachting holiday isn't going to be quite the luxury excursion he envisaged. The first half of the book is a delightful comedy of manners, but the mood gradually changes as the tension builds.

It is a book of its time - the end of the nineteenth century and the build up to the Great War. As such, it gives remarkable insights into the culture and attitudes of the period. The reference in the first sentence to 'black faces' may bring a few modern readers up short. The hero Carruthers (a name which has since become a parody) is a true-blue British hero -- honorable, brave and determined. I was forcibly reminded of Bulldog Drummond and of an adventure of his - Bulldog Drummond at Bay - published just before World War II, containing the same urgent (and uncannily accurate) warnings about German military buildup. But Carruthers is far more sympathetic and believable a character than Drummond, and Childers an immeasurably better writer than Sapper.

A great strength of the book is its authenticity. One can believe every moment actually happened. All the characters are fallible and plans invariably go slightly awry, just as in real life. And you can almost feel the mud and the cold wind and rain of the landscape - or rather seascape - in which most of the events take place.

A masterpiece, for lovers of great literature.

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