Last autumn I was completely won over by Erskine Childres boating and spying novel, ‘The Riddle of the Sands‘. It was utterly unexpected. I’m not generally interested in espionage thrillers and I take after my mother, who gets sea-sick on dry land just from watching boats move. Now it seems that ‘The Riddle’ wasn’t even a one-off. I’ve just read my second boating/spying novel and it’s every bit as wonderful as the first.
Firstly, it contains all of the hallmarks of this new (to me) genre.
1. The intelligent toff, moneyed and with far too much time on his hands, who has vague plans of maybe spending some time on the river/at sea.
2. Hatred and fear of evil Germans (one of these books was written in 1909 and this dramatic choise could be passed off as generalised xenophobia, ‘Trouble on the Thames’ was published in 1945, so the villains aren’t too surprising).
3. Midnight chases and dark evenings spent on the water, all in the agreeable company of an amateur sailor who doesn’t pretend to enjoy every minute of it
4. Plucky heroine. Will the gentleman admit to liking her? Will she be independent enough to take an important (but subservient) role in the action? Yes to both of the above!
In addition to these genre tropes, Bridges’ novel also contains amnesia, an escaped convict from Dartmore, blackmail, kidnapping and some truly breathtaking action set-pieces. I nearly missed my stop on the train because it came at the ‘Ve have vays of making him talk’ moment and I was too engrossed in the action. At the start of the book, I was mostly just enjoying all silliness, but that this point I realised how invested I was in the characters and their plight. I read the rest of the novel white-knuckled and on the edge of my seat.
So far, I haven’t been won over by the British Library’s beautifully packaged ‘Classic Crime’ series which has seen the republication of period murder mysteries. This BL ‘Classic Thriller’ on the other hand has been the perfect winter escapist read. It is wonderful that Bridges has been brought to a new readership, and Martin Edwards’ introduction tantalisingly hints at many more works of similar standard: ‘In the encyclopaedic ‘Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers … Harold Curjel pointed out that Bridges’s best stories often share common ingredients: ‘Always there is a thrillling chase down river after the villains or to escape from them.” Hooray for brave gentlemen spies, brave tomboyish women and for patriotic messing about in boats!