The Riddle of the Sands is often described as the first spy novel in English. It certainly gives Kim a run for hte money. And much more than Kim [see my review here] it does seem to have gathered in one place the essential elements of the genre. (The elements are bolded below.)
Our protagonist, Carruthers, is that indispensable English character, the gentlemanly amateur. A foppish society man, he is one day surprised to receive an invitation from an old university acquaintance to join a yachting trip. He and the acquaintance had never been close, but in his vanity, Carruthers supposes that the old acquaintance must have admired Carruthers more than Carruthers ever knew. And since Carruthers is bored in his Foreign Office job, and since his own vacation plans have collapsed, he accepts.
Carruthers quickly discovers however that he has been tricked into a much more dangerous adventure than he realized. His university friend, Arthur Davies, is no luxury yachtsman. As socially awkward as Carruthers is dandyish, Davies is a brilliant sailor who has stumbled upon a sinister secret while coasting along the sandbars of the North Sea. He has summoned Carruthers not for the charm of his company, but because Carruthers for all his foolishness has an intellectual skill to complement Davies’ own derring-do: fluency in the German language and political contacts back home.
So off the two men go on a sailing adventure that will thrill even those who cannot tell a lufftail from a jibsheer. We are led into an exotic and highly technical world by an author who deploys “a mass of verifiable detail, which gave authenticity to the story.”
Together, Carruthers and Davies stumble upon a deadly threat to the security of their country. Davies gets the girl. Carruthers grows into a better man. And Childers leaves it up to the reader to decide whether the exposure of the “riddle” will suffice to defeat the threat.
I won’t disclose the secret here, in case anyone wants to try this still impressively readable novel for himself or herself, other than to note that it will seem implausible – even ridiculous – to those of us who have the benefit of a hundred years of military hindsight. That said, not only did this book jolt the British military and naval establishments – but it also according to no less a witness than Winston Churchilll prodded them to recast their plans in ways that proved as useful and right as if every prophecy in the novel had been exactly correct.
As exciting as this novel is, it pales beside the life of its author: born into Ireland’s Protestant Ascendancy, Childers become a seaman as skilled as his hero Arthur Davies. He fought for Britain in the Boer War, returned home to smuggle arms to Irish rebels against Britain, then joined the Navy, serving as one of the first naval flyers and then as an intelligence officer. After the War, he joined Sinn Fein and the uprising against British rule. Secretary-General of the Irish delegation at the negotiations for Irish independence, Childers ultimately sided with the militants who rejected the agreement establishing Irish statehood. A rebel against the new Irish Free State, he was caught and executed by firing squad. But even that is not the end of the story: His son and namesake was elected president of the Irish Republic in 1973.
I didn’t know any of this biography when I started The Riddle of the Sands. Plunging into it after I had done, I wondered: really, why does anybody need to read spy fiction, when there are true stories like this?