‘Doomed to the outer solitude of London in September’: ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ by Erskine Childers (1903)

‘The Riddle of the Sands’ has been lurking on my to be read shelf for simply ages, so it was pure serendipity that I picked it up in the appropriate month.  My title quotation comes from the first paragraph.  After reading it, I realised I would follow my fashionable narrator, the debonaire Carruthers, through thick and thin.


It’s a real testament to Childers’ writing that I fell for Carruthers, because this book is sold as a ‘classic spy story’ and a ‘sea adventure’, two genres that I usually really struggle to enjoy.  If it wasn’t for the fact that the title sounds like Agatha Christie or Nancy Drew I probably would never have opened the thing, but I’m so glad I did.

In case you are a fan of spy-novel I should reassure you that ‘The Riddle’ comes complete with action, adventure and plots, but it is all tempered with the most wonderful bumbling Edwardian morals.  Carruthers ‘works’ for the civil service (it’s one of those turn of the century jobs that involves having protracted dinners in clubs and he is able to take a long vague and indefinite leave to go sailing which accounts for my sarcastic inverted commas).  His friend, Davies, loves yachting and is deeply patriotic.  Together, they will foil a German plot, if only they could find out what the plot was.

I apologise for making them sound silly, in my defence, the only other boating book of the period that I know is ‘Three Men on a Boat’ which may have coloured my reading slightly.  Our heroes are clearly very competent sailors, Davies is almost supernaturally good on water, but he makes up for this by his lovely British ineptness at so many spying skills.  It’s hard to see either of the pair getting on with James Bond; at the mere suggestion that a young lady be involved in the intrigue, they go completely to pieces: ‘”Don’t you see what a hideous fix you’ve put me into?  How caddish I feel about it?”… I did see, and I felt a cad myself…’

Between the British reticence and the school-boy enthusiasm I completely understand how this book has gained classic status.  Childers has created a winning combination in his pairing of the expert seaman Davies and the everyman Carruthers.  Whenever I was tempted to say that the yachting stuff was a bit dull, Carruthers would go to sleep, whenever I found the Swallows and Amazons adventurousness too much, he’d go off for a night in a hotel.  With the two of them on the lead, it’s hard to see how Britain can fail.

Childers’ narrator really wanted to spend his September on a luxurious holiday and I can’t blame him, but for a jolly good second best option I heartily recommend ‘The Riddle of Sand’, it really will teach you everything you need to know about being a gentleman spy. You can trust me on that, because the book has taught me not to lie:

‘”When in doubt, tell the truth!”
“It’s a rum thing how it often pays in this spying business,” said Davies, thoughtfully.’

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6 Responses to ‘Doomed to the outer solitude of London in September’: ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ by Erskine Childers (1903)

  1. BookerTalk says:

    I also had this on my reading list for ages, it’s one of the items on my classics club list but eveytime I started it I stumbled within about a page. Maybe my mood wasn’t ready for it.

  2. JacquiWine says:

    A friend recommended this book to me some time ago, but I had forgotten all about it until I saw your review. It sounds just the thing if you’re in the mood for a bit of escapism!

  3. Pingback: A new favourite sub-genre – posh amateur spies in boats foiling German plots: ‘Trouble on the Thames’ by Victor Bridges (1945) | Shoshi's Book Blog

  4. Pingback: Getting the most from genre literature: spy novels | Shoshi's Book Blog

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