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Top mysteries review: The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Year of publication: 1903.
Genre: Thriller, espionage novel.
Type of mystery: Military secrets.
Type of investigator: Amateur.
Setting & time: (mostly) the Frisian Islands, Germany, around he turn of the 20th century.

The narrator, Carruthers, is invited by Davies, an old acquaintance, to join him on a yachting trip in the North Sea. When he arrives, Carruthers discovers that the “yacht” is in fact a small boat, with no crew, and that Davies is hiding something from him. As they make their way down to the Frisian islands, Davies eventually reveals that he has started an impromptu investigation of possible nefarious doings by a man he suspects of being a British defector working with the German military. To complicate matters, Davies has fallen in love with the man’s daughter.

The book is in the public domain, and here is a link to an online edition: The Riddle of the Sands.

The Riddle of the Sands was one of the earliest spy novels, and has had immense influence on the genre. It was also a clear warning to the British, pointing out how badly they were prepared for repelling an invasion by sea. Here is some interesting reading on the subject: Wikipedia article.

The story is well written, with a solid plot and an engaging narrator, and is one of those charming adventure novels about plucky heroism by ordinary people caught in unusual circumstances. The sailing descriptions are correct and realistic (I get this information from people who know about sailing) and even a card-carrying landlubber like myself can enjoy them, even if they may occasionally have to consult a dictionary.

This is one of those proper British “boy’s own” tales: thrilling, patriotic and non-violent fun that boys of all ages (and sexes) can enjoy and imagine themselves participating in. The pace is very slow at first, but the tension begins to build up almost immediately, which should be enough to keep most people reading.

Rating: A pretty good early thriller, recommended read for sailing enthusiasts and fans of spy fiction. 3+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 92.
Place on the list(s): CWA #92.
Awards and nominations: None I am aware of.


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