The Riddle of The Riddle of the Sands

This has long been on my list of things to read one day, a classic, one of the first spy novels, but now I’ve read it, I’m not sure what to say.   Or rather, the things I want to say are mostly spoilers.    So, I’ll put all the spoilers below the picture and give a brief un-spoilery review first.   I did not love this book.   It starts off well enough — young Carruthers, a bit of a social butterfly has missed his holiday because he had to stay in the Foreign Office while Society went to the country.   In September he’s almost free, but no invitations are awaiting him.   Out of the blue an acquaintance from college writes and invites him to come sailing on the German coast.   Not the best, but it is an invitation, so Carruthers accepts.   Davies hasn’t been entirely straight with him — the boat is not a beautiful, crewed yacht where they can sip drinks on deck while sailing past picturesque little towns.   It is a plain little boat and they do all the crewing themselves and Davies — Davies is amusing to read about at first — has no more interest in scenery than a fish.   His joy is pure sailing and charting a very shallow, sandy, unpicturesque area of the Northern coast of Germany.   It emerges that Davies got Carruthers over to help him investigate what he believes is a plot.

There are enjoyable parts to this book.   Carruthers and Davies getting to know each other.   Carruthers turning into a real sailor.   I did keep wondering what the riddle was to the end.   But it is a nautical book.   A very nautical book.  If you enjoy reading about trying to navigate with a compass and dead reckoning though a fog in great detail, this is the book for you.  It is also quite realistic in parts which doesn’t serve too well when you’re trying to overhear a plot being discussed and can only get one word in 20.  And there is a lot of pondering over very little evidence. The book can get tedious and this is largely, I think, because it was not so much an adventure story as it is propaganda.   Also, apparently, sections of it were used unedited from Childer’s logbook of similar voyages.   There you have it.   If you want to read a classic ship’s log, get your copy today and if yours doesn’t have the maps, which mine didn’t, you can find them online.


Spoilery part:   I actually pretty much said what bugged me above.   It is a lot like reading a ship’s log.  But my real beef was with the evidence or lack of it.   At first, it’s all right, there was an attempt on Davies’ life, that’s good enough to investigate, but then after much investigation, they don’t really find anything more.   And then finally what they do find is a reason Dollman might have had for attempting to kill Davies that has nothing to do with any possible plot by Germany.   They keep going, two Brits, standing out like sore thumbs in Frisia charting channels which could be used in time of war, could be developed to be commercially viable.  And there’s nothing wrong with Germany developing her own channels for commercial viability.   The whole plot they are investigating is pure speculation.   Sound enough for the British to consider and take precautions against, which they did, and interesting historically for that reason, but as a story?   Sucks.    All the evidence they have they get at the very end and only because Dollmann turns into a dope.  All he had to do was not let them in his house and they would have had nothing.

And the whole scene where they’re rowing 16 miles each way to listen in on a secret meeting which should have been over long before they even got close, but was conveniently still going on, only Carruthers couldn’t hear enough of it.   Too much realism sinks the story right there for me.   All he got was gibberish.   And blisters.   My hands ache just thinking of the blisters.

Also, if you’ve been at sea a few weeks and then shave off your moustache, it’s going to be pretty obvious by the moustache-shaped pallor that that’s what you did.

And spending two days traipsing all over Frisia to discover almost nothing.   I was totally ready for them to find him and throw him overboard.

Give him his due, Childers was right that Germany posed a threat and that the North Sea coast needed protection, I just wish he wrote a better story.


I guess this counts as  20th century Classic, if I didn’t already count a 20th century classic.   Too many reviews on goodreads to count as forgotten.


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