Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Riddle of the Sands: Review

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers is another one of those books.  Like A Coffin for Dimitrios by Ambler, it's a big deal.  Ambler is credited with inventing the modern suspense novel.  Childers is credited by many critics as having written one of the best spy novels ever written--the classic Secret Service novel.  It's supposed to be a terrific spy novel kind of book.  I get that.  I get that Childers did something great and did it early (1903!).  But it just didn't do a whole lot for me.

Why, you may ask.  Well, I'll tell you.  Because for a large portion of the book, it's NOT about spying really.  It's about two guys on a boat.  Two guys who weren't really friends before they got on the boat together.  They just kind of knew each other and the first guy (That would be Arthur Davies) has been puttering around in the North Sea and out of the blue sends a letter to the second guy (Carruthers, minor clerk in the Foreign Office) and asks if Carruthers would like to join him on his little boat, the Dulcibella, for a late season holiday.  Carruthers comes along thinking it's going to be a jolly holiday only to find that it's a really tiny boat and there's no crew.  It's just him & Davies.  And it's a lot of work.  He spends a few days being disgruntled about this, but then suddenly has a little epiphany about how great this really is and then Davies Reveals All.  They become great chums and go off to spy out the land because England's gonna need this one day and Davies has gotten real suspicious of what might lurk out there amongst the sand and the water because of a run-in he had previously with a Bad Guy.

And I'm thinking, "Cool.  Now we'll get down to cases and the real meat of the story is on its way."

Only it's not.  Because first we have to talk A LOT about the guys sailing the boat.  And tides.  And sand. And letting the warp out (or in or something).  And calm water and not so calm water.  And running aground.  And kedging-off....and a whole bunch of other really nautical-sounding  words that I'm still not sure I understand what they are.  And more tides.  And running through the locks.  And tugboats towing them.  And lashing their little boat to a bigger boat.  And charts and channels and watersheds. And, by the way, more sand.  Lots of sand.  

I suppose I should have known that sand was important.  After all, it's in the title, right?  But honest to goodness, I was so tired of all the details about sailing the boat and all the mentions of sand and whether the sand was showing or whether it was covered in water that by the time we did get around to the actual spy/thriller action of the story I was too sand-bound to be terribly impressed.  Norman Donaldson tells us in the intro to the Dover edition (which I read) that "the richness of technical detail, especially in the yachting sequences, would have made it an outstanding and unforgettable volume of adventure even if the intelligence -gathering episodes had been replaced by, say, a treasure hunt or a search for the great auk."  Um.  Yeah.  If the reader's really into the finer details of yachting (and hearing about them for pages on end), then, yep, it's a riveting little adventure novel.  

As for me, a little bit of detail on how to sail the boat would have gone a loooooong way.  And a quicker route to the action would have made this a much better read for me.  I wasn't expecting the Victorian novelist's penchant for describing things in incredibly minute detail to be so prevalent in a spy novel.  Not that I can't read Victorian novels with the best of them--but I sort of expect that sort of thing from a Dickens or an Eliot or even a Collins.  Not from a spy thriller.

I must admit that I did like the main characters and I enjoyed their camaraderie (although as I briefly mention, I think it was a bit quick off the mark considering how they started).  More of them doing something other than sail the boat or talk about sand would have been a welcome treat.  Two and a half stars (rounded to three on GoodReads) for the characters, their interactions....and for this being a big deal kind of book.

Challenges: Outdo Yourself, Monthly Key Word, Mount TBR Challenge, 1001 Books Before You Die, Off the Shelf, 52 Books in 52 Weeks, Mystery and Crime Challenge, Embarrassment of Riches, 150 Plus Reading Challenge, Monthly Mix-up Mania, Vintage Mystery Challenge [Catergory #34: Somebody Else's Crime--book also read by Rich @ Past Offenses]


neer said...

I recently bought this book after hearing a lot about it (all the superlatives that you mention). But all talk- and no'll be a little hard to read it.

J F Norris said...

"Why, you may ask. Well, I'll tell you. Because for a large portion of the book, it's NOT about spying really. It's about two guys on a boat."

I burst out laughing when I read that. I love how you tell it like it is, Bev. So much for sacred cows of genre fiction!

Bev Hankins said...

Thanks, John. I always worry about taking down the sacred cows. I took some flack for not appreciating A Coffin for Dimitrios properly....