the observer Sat 06 June 2009
When Charles Carruthers accepts an invitation for a yachting and duck-shooting trip to the Frisian Islands from Arthur Davies, an old chum from his Oxford days, he has no idea their holiday will become a daredevil investigation into a German plot to invade Britain.
Out of context, the story of Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands sounds like a bog standard thriller, but that's because so many books are pale echoes of this exceptional novel.
Published in 1903, it predicted the threat of war with Germany and was so prescient in its identification of the British coast's defensive weaknesses that it influenced the siting of new naval bases.
It is also credited as an inspiration to everyone from John Buchan to Ken Follett. The writing is gripping and it's a marvel that Childers manages to make the minutiae of sailing and navigation so engrossing.
Although Riddle was an instant bestseller, Childers never wrote another novel, concentrating instead on military strategy manuals before entering politics and eventually becoming a fervent Irish nationalist.
Carruthers and Davies are wonderful characters, the former a fop from the Foreign Office, the latter an eccentric sailing fanatic.
Davies is based on the author and reading about his courageous struggles for king and country is particularly poignant when you know that Childers was considered a traitor by the British government at the time of his death. He was executed by a firing squad in 1922, by order of the Irish Free State.
A gripping book in its own right; even more fascinating in the context of the life and times of its author.