Riddle of the Sands was the first British spy story, according to Eric Ambler. Over the years, it has been a favorite of lovers of old-fashioned British writing and of small boat sailors, both real and wannabe. Riddle of the Sands is fiction, but it usually get listed with such books as Falcon on the Baltic (referenced internally) or A Voyage Alone in the Yawl Rob Roy – century old books about real small boat journeys.
Don’t expect a thriller; it may say thriller on your copy’s cover, but you know how unreliable back blurbs are. If you are a fan of Bond and Bourne, you’ll fall asleep by the third page, but it is one of my all time favorite books because it is so English, in the best sense of the word.
You might get the idea from the BREXIT posts and from 188. Before the Storm that I am down on the English. Far from it. It’s just that they spent several centuries as winners on the world stage, and winners get a lot of chances to do terrible things to the losers. America has now inherited their position, along with all its moral perils.
Riddle of the Sands is the story of two Brits, Davies and Carruthers, on an extended exploration of the waters off the Netherlands and Germany a decade before World War I. It unfolds slowly, in typical old-British fashion with intimations from the first that there is more going on than appears on the surface. Carruthers finally worms the truth out of Davies, and discovers that he is convinced that Dollmann, a German yachtsman of his acquaintance, is in fact a renegade Englishman acting as a spy for the Germans. Davies fears that there is a plot afoot to do great harm to England, and he has recruited Carruthers to help him ferret it out.
The plot against England is real and the danger is imminent, and its unfolding is properly slow and logical. But the charm of the book lies elsewhere, in the day to day work of seamanship as the two try to discover Dollmann’s intentions. And they are such good chaps, in the most English sense of decency, courage, and selfless patriotism.
Dollmann’s plot is uncovered, the British authorities are warned and danger is averted. Yet, at the end of the book, the author complains that the events uncovered by Davies and Carruthers have again been forgotten, and danger is still on the horizon.
Indeed, it was.