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The Riddle of the Sands  
1st edition
Author Robert Erskine Childers
Language English
Genre(s) Invasion novel,
Adventure novel,
Spy novel
Publisher Smith, Elder & Co
Publication date 1903
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
OCLC Number 3569143

The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service is a 1903 novel by Erskine Childers. It is an early example of the espionage novel, with a strong underlying theme of militarism. It has been made into a film and TV film.

It is a novel that "owes a lot to the wonderful adventure novels of writers like Rider Haggard, that were a staple of Victorian Britain"[1]; perhaps more significantly, it was a spy novel that "established a formula that included a mass of verifiable detail, which gave authenticity to the story – the same ploy that would be used so well by John Buchan, Ian Fleming, John le Carré and many others."[1] Ken Follett called it "the first modern thriller."[2]

The Observer, in a "fundamentally English" list published to coincide with the Big Read campaign in 2003[3], listed the book as #37 on its list of "The 100 Greatest Novels" from the past 300 years.[4]


Literary significance and criticism

The book enjoyed immense popularity in the years before World War I and was extremely influential. As Childers's biographer Andrew Boyle noted: "For the next ten years Childers's book remained the most powerful contribution of any English writer to the debate on Britain's alleged military unpreparedness".[5] It was a notable influence on John Buchan and Ken Follett, who described it as "an open-air adventure thriller about two young men who stumble upon a German armada preparing to invade England."[6][2]

In 1998, nautical writer Sam Llewellyn wrote a continuation of the story named The Shadow in the Sands. This is subtitled "being an account of the cruise of the yacht Gloria in the Frisian Islands in April of 1903 and the Conclusion of the Events described by Erskine Childers".[7]

Plot summary

Carruthers, a minor official in the Foreign Office is contacted by an acquaintance, Davies, asking him to join in a yachting holiday in the German Frisian islands. Carruthers agrees, as his other plans for a holiday have fallen through. He arrives to find that Davies has a small sailing boat, not the comfortable crewed yacht that he expected. Davies gradually reveals that he suspects that the Germans are undertaking something sinister in the area, based on his belief that he was nearly wrecked by a German yacht luring him into a shoal in rough weather. Carruthers and Davies spend some time exploring the shallow tidal waters of the area, moving closer to the mysterious site where there is a rumoured secret treasure recovery project in progress. They are watched by a German navy patrol boat, which warns them away from the area.

Taking advantage of a thick fog, Davies navigates them covertly through the complicated sandbanks in a small boat to investigate the site. They find that it is actually the centre of a German plan to invade England. The invasion plan is master-minded by a renegade Englishman, but Davies has fallen in love with his daughter and he does not want to hurt her by revealing her father's treason. Eventually they manage to escape with the information and the invasion plan is foiled.

Historical context

It was one of the early invasion novels, "...a story with a purpose" in the author's own words, written from "a patriot's natural sense of duty", which predicted war with Germany and called for British preparedness.[8] The whole genre of "invasion novels" raised the public's awareness of the potential threat of Imperial Germany and as a result the Royal Navy developed several bases (Scapa Flow, Invergordon and Rosyth) on the North Sea coast of the British Isles to prepare for the possibility of war with Germany. Winston Churchill later credited the book as a major reason why the Admiralty had decided to establish the new naval bases. When war was declared he ordered the Director of Naval Intelligence to find Childers, whom he had met when the author was campaigning to represent a naval seat in Parliament, and employ him.[9][10] At the time Childers was writing Riddle he was also contributing to a factual book published by The Times in which he warned of outdated British army tactics in the event of "conflicts of the future".[11] He developed this theme in two further works he published in 1911: War and the Arme Blanche and German Influence on British Cavalry.[12]

The novel contains many realistic details based on Childers's own sailing trips along the East Frisia coast and large parts of his logbook entries from an 1897 Baltic cruise "appear almost unedited in the book."[1] In August 1910, inspired by the work, two British amateur yachtsmen, Captain Bernard Trench RM and Lieutenant Vivian Brandon RN, undertook a sailing holiday along the same section of the Frisian coast, during which they collected information about German naval installations. The two men joined "Room 40", the intelligence and decoding section of the British Admiralty, on the outbreak of war.[13]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

The Riddle of the Sands also provided the plot for the film of the same title released in 1979, starring Michael York as Charles Carruthers and Simon MacCorkindale as Arthur Davies.[14]

In Germany, the novel was popularized by the TV movie Das Rätsel der Sandbank, produced in 1984 by the public TV and radio station Radio Bremen, starring Burghart Klaußner as Davies and Peter Sattmann as Carruthers.[15]


  1. ^ a b c Erskine Childers's log books from the National Maritime Museum
  2. ^ a b Ken Follett (2006-10-31) The Art of Suspense DVD, starting at 3 mins 30 secs
  3. ^ The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list, from the website of The Guardian
  4. ^ The 100 greatest novels of all time, from the website of The Guardian
  5. ^ Boyle, Andrew (1977). The Riddle of Erskine Childers. London: Hutchinson. p. 111. ISBN 0-09-128490-2.  
  6. ^ Clark, Ignatius (1992). Voices prophesying war, 1763-1984. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 142–3. ISBN 0192123025.  
  7. ^ British Library integrated catalogue, system number 010084730
  8. ^ Boyle (1977: 108;140)
  9. ^ Knightley, Phillip. The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century. London: Pimlico. p. 17. ISBN 1844130916.  
  10. ^ Boyle (1977: 196–197)
  11. ^ Boyle (1997: 129-130)
  12. ^ Boyle (1997: 136-137)
  13. ^ Piper, Leonard (2007). Dangerous Waters. London, England: Continuum. pp. 105–7. ISBN 1847250203.  
  14. ^ The Riddle of the Sands at the Internet Movie Database (1979 version)
  15. ^ The Riddle of the Sands at the Internet Movie Database (1987 version)

External links



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