The Riddle of the Sands (Review)

The Riddle of the Sands (Review)

I‘d always wanted to read this book, the 1903 grandfather of the espionage genre. Found it at Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road. So excited. Saved it for the perfect time, cracked it open, read it slow to savor it.

It was undercooked.

Look, I’ve read all sorts of books out of history, books hundreds of years old. I absolutely love everything H.G. Wells ever wrote. And the book starts off well, with lonely Carruthers kicking about London during the summer vacation month. He gets a strange invitation to help pilot a small yacht around the Baltic from a one-time friend, a drifting failure of a man, which he desperately and whimsically accepts. And so he arrives and they bump about the Baltic for a bit, with Carruthers shaking off his preconceptions (and rediscovering them) over and over.

So finally, we get to the crux of the issue. We learn that someone has tried to kill his companion Davies. Horrifying. Except it was a pretty inept attempt on his life, to draw him away from the spot on the North German coast he’d been puttering about in, to lead him over the sandbanks off Neuwark to beach him in hopes that his boat tipped over and he drowns (which is about as likely to work as putting a rake on someone’s front lawn at night in hopes they walk out and whack themselves in the head with it). The attempt was a long shot, very circumstantial. If I’d been Carruthers, I would have been more likely to slip ashore at the next port and find better amusements elsewhere.

So the two bumble about the Baltic and the northern German coast, seeking out whatever the secret is, meeting all sorts of secretive people, finding nothing in the way of clues, not really advancing the plot at all. All that was of interest was the strange deal with this coast, how during low tide its sands are exposed, all the way out to its barrier islands. So they sail and beach, sail and beach. Look, I’m not a sailor yet I do like a good nautical yarn, but how does one make sense out of this…

There was nothing remarkable about it, a double and a single block (like our peak halyards), the lower one hook into a ring in the boat, the hauling part made fast to a clear on the davit itself.


Eventually the two use their rowboat to skit over the sands one night, so Carruthers can listen through a window and pick up precisely… nothing. And then Carruthers leaves Davies to ride a train, doubling back to trudge across bleak salt fens, discovering a lot of nothing either. Nobody shoots at him. Nobody follows him. He gets rained on. And finally he sneaks onto a towed barge. There, he spies the Kaiser (okay, that could be a clue) and witnesses a lot of circumstantial evidence (that the Germans are towing a half-loaded barge in every direction, so this means they are going to barge their troops to England and invade! Huh?

And so the hero grounds the villains onto the sands and escapes on a boat, to carry this news back. Evidently this is enough for a man to commit suicide (for reasons and backstory we never learn) and that the British Admiralty place a new port facility on the North Sea approaches.

It’s one of those books you put down and think, Waitaminute. What?

The publishers knew this, of course. As I closed the book, I reexamined the cover, a drawing of Davies and Carruthers in a small fen-hidden boat, looking out at flotilla of dark and distant cruisers. Yes, that would have been exciting! That would have been something! Not a long tangled string with newly-build coastal barges, 20 tons of coal, and the vague appearance of the crown prince.

For you literary history buffs, I’m going to recommend a pass. Very disappointing.