17 June 2019

A Discovering Diamonds review of Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Good Reads Revisited


"Well worth a read. Though solid and steady in plot development, and quite skimpy on main characters, its historical and literary importance make it a book I am very glad to have read."


Amazon UK

Amazon US
Amazon CA

Spy/thriller

Early 20th century
North Sea coast of Germany and Holland


Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers, was first published in 1903 and claims to be a diaristic account of events along part of the German North Sea coast, between the Emse and Jade rivers, north-west of Bremen. The story is fictional but was based on Childers' conviction that England was vulnerable to German invasion. The book turned out to be highly influential in its day, persuading both the general public and the military authorities of the risk. More generally, the book can be seen as a direct ancestor of many more recent spy novels, and so was pivotal in both the real and literary worlds. A purist would say that it was not historical fiction since Childers was writing about his own era rather than a past one, but the tale is rewarding in its own right.

The area where the action takes place is strongly affected by tides. Large tracts of sand become visible off the coast and around a row of offshore islands as the tide falls, and navigation is possible only along particular streams. The continual tidal changes drive a great deal of the plot.


Childers was, in reality, an accomplished yachtsman, and his mastery of the necessary skills means that his descriptions of navigating the ever-changing tidal waters are vivid and compelling. His protagonist Carruthers, on the other hand, is out of his element - his previous experience of boats consists mostly of alcohol-heavy inshore jaunts on immaculately neat vessels. His sidekick Davies is initially the one who motivates the plot, with his expertise in a boat, and his conviction that there is a German plot to be foiled. It takes time to get Carruthers energised, but when this happens, he throws himself whole-heartedly into the investigation, proving to be more bold and direct than Davies was prepared to be.


Now, Riddle of the Sands lacks some elements which a modern spy story would consider essential. So although Carruthers is sort-of like James Bond, and his Davies sort-of like Q in having specific technical skills that Carruthers needs, the rest of the Secret Service paraphernalia is missing. There is no M here - Carruthers and Davies basically decide to go off on their own initiative - and the only role of the senior civil service is to approve some extended leave. There are indeed disguises and a covert infiltration of the enemy headquarters. But there are no real fights, hardly anyone dies, and the threat is a potential future one, rather than some imminent collapse of the world order. Those things said it is easy to see how this story might have inspired Fleming, Le Carre, and others, to write their own books.


Fascinatingly, Childers himself was executed in 1922 as a spy and traitor by the British government, for his support for the cause of Irish Home Rule. Riddle of the Sands remained his only novel, though he wrote extensive quantities of intelligence and propaganda material for both British and Irish governments.


In modern terms, the book is slow to develop, and the last few chapters seem to go through at a breakneck pace compared to the earlier ones. It wasn't always clear to me how and why the main characters realised the real significance of particular clues, and so got to grasp the underlying plot. But as an example of an emerging genre, written by someone with detailed technical knowledge of his subject, and a passionate commitment to making the issue publicly known, it is well worth a read. Though solid and steady in plot development, and quite skimpy on main characters, its historical and literary importance make it a book I am very glad to have read.


© Richard Abbott




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NEW (OCCASIONAL) FEATURE

ON THIS DAY...

The statue of liberty arrives in New York Harbour, in 1885, a gift from France...
although she was in bits and had to be reassembled!

Statue Of Liberty, Landmark, Island

also
in 1579 Sir Francis Drake lands on the coast of California at Drakes Bay, 
and names it "New Albion"
your host, Helen Hollick
paddling in the Pacific Ocean
at Drake's Bay (2008)

15 June 2019

The Weekend

No reviews posted at the weekends - 
why not browse some of the items you may have missed?

click here for our Index

or browse back through our reviews

<start with our previous review click here

Bright Axe: The Byrhtnoth Chronicles: Book 2
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14 June 2019

A Discovering Diamonds review of Bright Axe by Christine Hancock

Bright Axe: The Byrhtnoth Chronicles: Book 2

"A robust story that will appeal to fans of this later Anglo-Saxon period in England."

AMAZON UK

AMAZON US 
AMAZON CA
The Byrhtnoth Chronicles: Book 2

Fictional Saga
Anglo Saxon 10th century 
England

"AD 947: Byrhtnoth has received his father’s sword. But his hall is burnt and the sword stolen. Learning that his father still lives, he swears a solemn vow to find him.
Torn between his quest and duty to Lord Athelstan of East Anglia, friends are hurt when an old enemy unexpectedly reappears. Despised by his best friend for his failure, he is sent deep into Northumbria, to Bebbanburg. 
Winter closes in and wolves prowl the hills. Who is the mysterious woman he encounters there? She offers him news of his father – and more.
Will Byrhtnoth remain with her, or return home to discover the fate of the friends he abandoned?"

I felt I should have read the previous volume - Bright Sword – before attempting this volume. Byrhtnoth, the 10th-century Saxon Ealdorman of Essex, features in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon which took place against the Danes in 991, but little else is known of him. He is introduced as an orphan aged seven and the book follows his adventures for a decade.

When Book two opens it is AD 947 and Byrhtnoth is named as the new lord of the village and heir to a beautiful sword. Still not knowing the whereabouts of his parents, his new hall is burnt out and the sword stolen. Learning that his father still lives, he swears a solemn vow to find him. The quest takes him north to Bebbanburg in Northumbria, where winter closes in and wolves prowl the hills. He encounters a mysterious woman who offers him news of his father, but he doubts he can trust her or her information.

Much of this second book details the adventures of the would-be shield-maiden, Saewynn, who has the misfortune to be captured by one of Byrhtnoth’s enemies while he is in the north and several harrowing scenes describe her misadventures.            


The writing style is plain, using modern English, and while this avoids anachronisms and is easy to follow, I hankered for a little allusion to the literary style of Anglo-Saxon poems; a small alliterative phrase or a kenning or two, perhaps even a quotation would have made my day. My feeling is that the book could have been tightened somewhat, but the novel is a robust story that will appeal to fans of this later Anglo-Saxon period in England.

© Jen Black





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