Thursday, May 14, 2020

227. The Riddle of the Sands

The Riddle of the Sands
Erskine Childers
1903
Around 300 pages













This is one of those novels where the background of the story is almost more interesting than the plot itself. Childers wrote this novel with the aim of illustrating the weaknesses of British defense and how Germany could take advantages of those weaknesses (keep in mind that this was published in 1903!). Childers later became an Irish nationalist and was executed by a British firing squad during the Irish Civil War for smuggling weapons into Ireland. His last words were, "Take a step or two forward, lads, it will be easier that way." Wait, am I in love with this dead guy? I'll worry about that later.

Carruthers, a minor official in the Foreign Office, reluctantly accepts an invitation from a casual acquaintance, Davies, to go on a yachting/duck shooting trip. Davies eventually reveals that he suspects a German plot is brewing in the Frisian Islands, and believes Dollman, a German businessman, is actually a spy. Davies wants Carruthers to help, and to help in a way that Dollman's daughter will still have sex with Davies.

It can be pretty cringey when a novelist is trying to make an extreme point with the tools of fiction. I can't even read Ayn Rand for this purpose, and even competent writers like Jack London sometimes can't resist including a long-winded, out-of-place speech where a character espouses the author's beliefs while the other characters stare in open-mouthed admiration. On the other hand, we have also seen this done really well on the List, with Emile Zola coming to mind as the best example of this.

Fortunately, on a scale of Ayn to Zola, Childers is much closer to Zola. He actually tells a really interesting story with a likable, funny narrator. Childers' revolutionary spirit is dripping from the text and is pretty infectious.

I question the necessity of the epilogue, as I question the necessity of all epilogues. I felt like it was an insecure twitch on Childers' part, like he was panicking that he didn't make his point clear enough in the body of the novel. No worries, Childers, we got it.

I had never heard of this novel, so I once again thank the List for introducing us.

RATING: ****-

Interesting Facts:

Childers is the father of the fourth president of Ireland, Erskine Hamilton Childers.

Considered the first spy novel, not counting Kim.

Winston Churchill said of Childers, "No man has done more harm or shown more genuine malice or endeavoured to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, actuated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth."

UP NEXT: Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe. Looks like another good one, even if I haven't heard of it.

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