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The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service

3.62  ·  Rating Details  ·  3,462 Ratings  ·  361 Reviews
Erskine Childer’s gripping espionage thriller is set in the eerie seas and sands off the north coast of Germany

Languishing one summer at the Foreign Office in London, Carruthers is rescued by an unexpected invitation to join Arthur Davies and the Dulcibella in the Baltic. A grouse-shooting party or a weekend at Cowes would have been more Carruther’s style. More disconcerti
Paperback, 284 pages
Published October 24th 1998 by Penguin Books, Limited (UK) (first published 1902)
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Jeffrey Keeten
May 04, 2016 Jeffrey Keeten rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ww1
”I have read of men who, when forced by their calling to live for long periods in utter solitude--save for a few black faces--have made it a rule to dress regularly for dinner in order to maintain their self-respect and prevent a relapse into barbarism. It was in some such spirit, with an added touch of self-consciousness, that, at seven o’clock in the evening of September 23 in recent years, I was making my evening toilet in my chambers in Pall Mall. I thought the date and the placed justified ...more
Nov 07, 2014 Paul rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: thriller
2.5 stars rounded up
This novel is quite an oddity; a very early example of the spy genre and very influential amongst later writers like Le Carre, Follett and Fleming and comparable to Haggard and Buchan. Its author a traditional example of the “stuff that made the Empire”. Of course, nothing is that simple and Childers went from being an ardent supporter of the British Empire, serving in the Boer War and being decorated in the First World War; to being an ardent supporter of Irish independence
Aug 05, 2007 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2007
Erskine Childers was shot by firing squad during the Irish civil war in 1922. According to Wikipedia, his last words were a joke at the expense of his executioners: "Take a step or two forward, lads. It will be easier that way."
His son was subsequently elected fourth president of Ireland in an upset election in the 1970's, sadly to die in office a year or so later.

Whatever the circumstances of his life and death, this story is a "cracking good read", one of the earliest novels in the genre of s
Jan 30, 2012 Shovelmonkey1 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: spy lovers and people who like a lot of sailing references
Recommended to Shovelmonkey1 by: a misreading of the 1001 books list
I read this book because I totally thought it was about something else. This is what happens when you see a book on a list, in this case the 1001 books to read before you die list, and run off at a tangent because it has the word "sand" in the title! Did I pause to read the 1001BTRBYD entry concerning this book? Nope. I bought it in a second hand store, motored home and curled up on the sofa with the vague and woolly notion of getting some sort of desert-based mystery, possibly with an archaeolo ...more
It was quite interesting to read which inspired the modern espionage books.

According to Mark Valentine, he ranked it in the top five spy stories of the 20th century, along with Buchan's The 39 Steps, Conrad's The Secret Agent Somerset Maugham's Ashenden and the now unjustly overlooked Bretherton, a Great War tale by Major W.F. Morris.

This was the only fiction book written by Childers who was unfaithful charged by treason since he was found in possession of a firearm - a capital offense by the I
Aug 05, 2012 Jane rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: war, fiction, maritime, mystery
This book (and the movie adaptation) was much loved in my family home.
Childers wrote it pre-WWI and it's based on a sailing trip he took around the Frisian sands.

The book is told from Carruther's perspective. He is wasting away summer in London's Foreign Office when he receives a missive from an old university friend, Davies, who is sailing in the Baltic Sea and is in desperate need of supplies. Cheered up with the thought of spending a few weeks' pleasure cruising, Carruthers packs his trunks
Jul 28, 2013 Susan rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book was given to me with the enticement of its being “the first spy novel.” This may be true, but just as the first submarine was clunky and didn’t submerge much, The Riddle of the Sands is heavy, outmoded and pretty much no fun to read.

Like some of the John Buchan novels (Buchan was a fan of Childers), it is part propaganda, meant to spur on the Brits to prepare themselves against a German attack. Published in 1903, it was later seen as prescient so, historically, it has interest. It is
I'm not sure I've ever been so happy to finish a book.

From what I understand The Riddle of the Sands is considered one of the first spy stories (at 1903), though the validity of that statement is easily debatable. Regardless, I'm glad to see spy stories have improved significantly. Remember in Moby Dick (unabridged) there are all those chapters about the history of whaling, and whaling boats, and the anatomy of a whale, and what parts can be used for food and candlemaking and whatever else? That
Considered to be the first of the modern spy/espionage thriller genre, this book set prior to World War I, was purported to have given the British Admiralty a wake-up call about the vulnerability of England should the Germans wage a surprise attack and to take action to prevent that from happening.

Davies, a young man with considerable sailing knowledge and love of the sea is convinced that while sailing near the German Frisian Islands, an attempt was made to kill him in order to stop Davies fro
Feb 04, 2015 ^ rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those who like spy or sailing stories
Not to be missed.

The publisher states on the back cover that "this thrilling adventure is now regarded as the first -- and one of the best -- spy novels ever written, inspiring later masters of the genre from John Buchan to John le Carre." The premise of the storyline is not so far fetched as one might initially suppose, given that the First World War broke out only eleven years later.

First published in 1903, part of the charm of this book lies in remembering the naval technologies of that day.
Feb 03, 2009 Evan rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is a richly detailed yachting novel that happens to have a spy plot, the author's vision of spying as real as the vision boys with wooden swords in a treehouse might have of piracy. There is an admirable sense of atmosphere in the book, but hardly ever a sense of suspense. The complexity of characterization is far deeper than Childers's ability to make his characters interesting. Many passages stink of a florid, Victorian prose, and the much praised dinner scene near the end of the book is ...more
Jim Leckband
Apr 23, 2011 Jim Leckband rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Okay, you've read the hype about this book - "First spy thriller ever written" etc., etc. This book is not that book in the way you might expect. This is not James Bond or Le Carre or Greene where there is a roller coaster of spy-vs.-spy and intrigue and double-crosses and high body counts.

No, this is a book about sand. And tides. And the boats that scoot around sand. And tides. And the men who steer the boats that scoot around sand. And tides. And the men who are interested about finding out ab
I've had this book on my shelves for so many years (and then delayed reading it!) I was worried my edition might not be pictured here on goodreads. Of course I needn't have feared. Riddle of the Sands is such a classic and the folks here on goodreads so resourceful, every edition of this early English spy novel is bound to be listed—though I wouldn't know them all.

I read and listened to this book and I'm not sure I would have gotten through it any other way.* It's very technical for this non sea
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Jan 15, 2015 Jenny (Reading Envy) marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jenny (Reading Envy) by: Julie Davis
Up for free in audio from Forgotten Classics.
Perry Whitford
Oct 13, 2015 Perry Whitford rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
'They've got no colonies to speak of, and must have them, like us.'

When all is said and done, is there a clearer, simpler way to explain why a war between Germany and her imperial rivals in Europe was certain to happen?

For the prescient Erskine Childers WWI was an inevitability more than a decade before it finally took place, which prompted him to write this wake-up call for the British government, which also turned out to be the first modern-day espionage novel.

Davies, an English yachtsman ind
May 12, 2016 John rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This really didn't rock my boat (pun fully intended). If I had had many years of direct nautical experience and knew by heart the meanings of the plethora of nautical terms used here, things may have been different. I didn't like myself or the author by the end of the book, though the book's two central characters I found appealing.

The most interesting factor here for me was that this book was published in 1902, 12 years before the outbreak of the Great War. Anyone reading the novel, prior to t
Tim Robinson
Aug 27, 2016 Tim Robinson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Don't read the "official" review, as it is a spoiler.

Caruthers works in the foreign office and is stranded in London while all his friends are off on holiday. Suddenly, he gets an unexpected invitation to do some yachting and duck shooting on the Baltic with old school acquaintance Davies.

The first half of the book is Three Men in a Boat meets Three Men on a Bummel, messing about in a tiny vessel off the coast of Germany. This part is rather too long, but persist. It transpires that Davies has a
Jun 28, 2008 Tim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a great model for the kind of fiction I love to read: a mostly forgotten novel that evokes a very different place and time. It is billed as one of the first spy novels ever written (1903), a template for the modern thriller, but that's not what I like about it. It's the way it transports us to a time that is now forgotten.

You see, the future always updates the past. We know the end of the story, and we interpret the beginning through the lens of the end. So we know all about WWI and the
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 08, 2011 Lobstergirl rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Vera Wang
This is Childers' only novel, written as propaganda to urge the British government to develop defenses against a possible German invasion pre-World War I, or at least mandatory naval service. Yachtsman Davies has persuaded his Oxford acquaintance Carruthers, not entirely forthrightly, to accompany him as mate on a meandering journey through the North Sea waters and sands of the German East Frisian Islands, at high tide and low, on the cramped Dulcibella. We soon find out that Davies needs Carrut ...more
Mar 06, 2014 Bethan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: regular-fiction
If you are interested in sailing, READ THIS(!) Lots of sailing terminology and even maps provided. And if you like that very classic British 'feel' from the early twentieth century - the fact that Childers was embarrassed to put in a love story because his publisher made him kind of says it all - and a spy story. It's two chaps finding themselves together on a decrepit old boat on the German shores and trying to find out what is going on there (espionage). It was just OK for me but it's an early ...more
Erskine Childers' Riddle of the Sands is more interesting as a historical specimen than a novel. The plot develops too slowly and is, ultimately, rather far-fetched. It was a popular sensation when published in 1903 and hence Childers is often credited with creation of the first spy novel. Many critics see him as the predecessor of John Buchan and Eric Ambler. The lengthy sections of the novel dealing with the minutiae of small craft navigation under canvas may not be of interest to those withou ...more

This is one of those books where you don't want the plot to unravel too quickly because you are enjoying the journey so much.
When a competent seaman with frustrated Naval aspirations stumbles across suspicious German activity on the Friesian coast, he invites his German speaking friend, a sophisticated but minor civil servant to help him investigate under the pretext of a shooting holiday. The bored city gent 'Carruthers' accepts and discovers the multiple challenges of impromptu, amateur espio
Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk
Feb 04, 2011 Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: thriller, fiction
I read this in my youth, enjoyed it, bought a copy to read again, enjoyed it and passed it one then repeated the whole process a few years later. It's a reasonably good spy story but it's also nicely intertwined with a book about sailing which actually turns out to be quite interesting.
Aug 09, 2015 Linda rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
No matter that I read 100 pages, read amateur and professional critiques and tried very hard to finish since it is for a book discussion group, I could not finish this book. I even skipped to the last chapter, hoping the resolution would spark some interest. Nothing helped. Perhaps if I had an interest in sailing it would have been a more interesting read. That this is considered "the book" which has inspired modern day spy thriller writers, leaves me surprised. Perhaps this book is best left to ...more
Ray Noyes
Oh dear! One needs a lot of dogged perseverance to get through this book. If you wish to know all the technical details of how a yacht sails and the unendingly boring detail of shifting sandbanks, this is the book for you!
I read it on a Kindle which was a big mistake. The text frequently refers to maps that are at the end of the book. With a Kindle, these are so small and so inaccessible as to be unusable. So although the plot is a simple one, most of the time I had no idea where the action was
Geoffrey Gudgion
Very much of its era (early 1900's) so the style is peppered with expressions like "by Jove, Carruthers!" Some excellent descriptions of small-boat sailing, but other passages are as tortuous as the channels our two heroes must navigate. The book was no doubt ground-breaking in its time as one of the first spy novels, and prescient in its predictions of conflict between Germany and Great Britain more than a decade before the outbreak of the First World War. A spiffing read for sailors and for af ...more
Aug 21, 2015 Kim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: classics
"The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service" is a 1903 novel written by Erskine Childers. According to the back of the book it is regarded as the first important British spy novel and one of the best examples of the genre ever written. I'm not sure who regarded it as those things it just says "by many critics" on the back and that could be just about anybody, although I guess it means those people who sit around telling us how horrible or wonderful, usually horrible, a book is and I don ...more
Jun 14, 2014 Alan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a gripping, fascinating account of sailing and running aground on the sandbars of the marshy reaches in Frisia and Holland. I read this maybe a dozen years ago, after I had crewed on the midnight watch (watch and watch, four hours each) coming up from Jacksonville, FLA to Westport, MA. And I had crewed for a week in Penobscot Bay, ME, where I learned from charts that Maine has 3500 islands--and they all look alike, though they do vary from rocks with one pine to rocks and rocks with pine ...more
Nick Duretta
This is more impressive to me for its place in history (it is often called the first spy thriller)--and its remarkable prescience--than as an engaging novel. It is extremely tame compared to today's thrillers, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but there's so much nautical lingo and detailed examinations of maps of Germany's North Sea coast that the plot often seems secondary. Oh yes, the plot. Two British men, ostensibly on a cruise off the coast of Germany to do some duck hunting, get wind o ...more
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Robert Erskine Childers DSC, universally known as Erskine Childers, was the author of the influential novel The Riddle of the Sands and an Irish nationalist who smuggled guns to Ireland in his sailing yacht Asgard. He was executed by the authorities of the nascent Irish Free State during the Irish Civil War in 1922. He was the son of British Orientalist scholar Robert Caesar Childers; the cousin o ...more
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