The Riddle of the Sands (1903) was pretty much an immediate sensation when it first came out and propelled its author, Erskine Childers, to fame. It’s widely considered the first true spy novel, though there’s a surprising degree of debate surrounding that claim. (You could argue that Caleb Williams (1794) by William Godwin should really take that crown, but it’s less about a spy than it is about the consequences of spying — two very different things. There are others, too, that could take the mantle, but we’ll look at those another day.) However, there are several interesting facets about Childers’s book that make it of particular appeal. Father of Mary Shelley he is not, but the novel did lead him to being executed for treason. The irony of this is almost excruciating, and entirely befits a spy novelist.
Childers was born in England and, though not entirely politically minded, he was so outraged by the injustices of the British occupation in Ireland that he ended up joining Sinn Fein and eventually rose to the position of secretary-general of the newly formed Irish Republic. Unfortunately, this very public position eventually led to his downfall. Winston Churchill, who apparently privately admitted the armament of Britain was largely due to the exposure of their potential defensive weaknesses in Riddle of the Sands, once claimed of Childers,
No man has done more harm or done 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.
The short story is that he strongly opposed the final draft of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and effectively became blacklisted by both sides in his effort to find a better way forward (the long story is both a bit more boring and a lot more bloody). As a result, he went into hiding, having been accused of duplicity and ‘starting one war and trying to start another’, and was finally charged with gun-possession and executed by a firing squad.
Riddle of the Sands is one of those books I wasn’t really expecting to like. Despite the debt they owe, many of Childers’s literary descendants accuse Riddle of being a glorified yachting adventure novel with a thread of espionage loosely woven through the centre — hardly a commendation. Also, it was essentially a propaganda novel, playing off growing fears among the British that The Enemy was not only in their midst but due to slack national security could successfully invade at any moment. However, it’s actually really well written and has an oddly lyrical nature to the narration. In fact, I frequently find myself reading it in the same voice as I would Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.
The story follows the adventures of a civil servant named Carruthers who is invited on a sailing holiday in the Baltic to escape the routine world of the office and finds himself embroiled in a plot by the Germans to invade Britain. Carruthers and his companion, Davies, must now escape notice (and capture) and try not to fall for the ‘horrible nuisance’ of a heroine, all the while racing to warn the authorities and stop the invasion of their fair shores. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the era and provides a marvellous springboard into any discussion on the development of social paranoia.
I think what makes this novel particularly interesting to me is that it was written before there was a genre proper, so any generic ‘conventions’ we find are actually borrowed from adventure and detective fiction, and ‘masculine romances’. I think because of this, it seems rather removed from the conspiracy, clandestinity and slightly camp subterfuge experienced by the heroes and anti-heroes from later examples of the genre, such as The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (le Carre, 1963) or The Berlin Memorandum (Hall, 1965). However, at the time, fledgling thrillers like this one offered a stark contrast to the adventure tales aimed largely at schoolboys, or the police procedural novels found in railway station bookshops. Early espionage novels dealt with the political world stage. They encompassed real fears of international instability and the consequences of the quickening pace of modernisation. (It should come as no surprise that the genre emerged amid burgeoning modernist concerns with alienation and social order, even if the spy genre and literary modernism ended up in different places.) Early spy fiction is deeply perturbed by the increasing impotence of the ordinary individual. In particular, these early novels attempt to resolve these issues by trying to reconcile with the potential for invasion or subversion by an unknown Other.
I won’t get too into it here, but this can really be seen at work in Riddle. The two heroes, Davies and Carruthers, are still bound by a social system in which privacy is practically held on a pedestal. (In this respect you could argue that this is why ‘respectable’ women couldn’t really be seen alone in public, because they were representatives of the home, that hallowed sphere of the private.) Carruthers is shocked by Davies’s conviction that Dollmann (the villain of the piece) is a German spy and almost immediately dismisses the possiblity on the grounds it is ungentlemanly. You can imagine his reaction when Davies deduces that they themselves must spy on Dollmann in order to confirm their suspicions about his activities.
Yet, it’s only when they can discover that Dollmann is in fact English (and thus himself breaking the rules of engagement) that their own spying becomes acceptable. In order for the heroes to expose the spy, they must themselves become spies; in order for Dollmann to be uncovered as the ‘enemy’, he must be found to be already a traitor. Thus, they rely heavily on the presence of a higher authority (what Lacan would term ‘a big Other’, i.e. here the abstract authority of social mores) for justification and reassurance in their cause, and they actively strive to uphold the tenets of that authority. As Carruthers eventually concedes,
the man is an Englishman, and if he’s in Germany he’s a traitor to us, and we as Englishmen have a right to expose him. If we can’t do it without spying we’ve a right to spy, at our own risk.
So, even when their faith in their ability to get out of their predicament begins to waver, they ultimately find security in the belief that the symbolic order is right. Despite Dollmann’s protests that he is in fact working for the English inside Germany as a double agent, they decide the only way to solve the situation is to take him back to England. There he will either prove right or be hanged as a traitor. However, just as they are entering the North Sea, Dollmann jumps overboard and lets the weight of his chains sink him to the bottom. His suicide serves to both confirm Davies and Carruthers’s assertions that he is up to no good and validate their belief in the symbolic order they are trying to uphold.
There seems to be a bit of renewed interest in Riddle of late, there was a review of it in the Guardian a couple of days ago and the BBC did a radio play of it last year. If Julie for Forgotten Classics does end up deciding to read it, I know I for one will be listening.