Review: The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers

FiveBooks! What? How could you let me down like this? The Riddle of the Sands was supposed to be one of the five best books in all the land on the Secret Service. Uncool! I just thought it was going to be so excited, nonstop intrigue and deception, culminating in some sort of thrilling climax where all the previously-introduced thrilling spy elements would come together in for an astounding finish. Like the sort of thing H. Rider Haggard would do, if H. Rider Haggard wrote spy novels. Why was it not like that?

The premise promised good things: Our protagonist, Carruthers, receives a letter from an old school acquaintance, Davies, asking Carruthers to join him on a yachting expedition. Carruthers is bored in London, as it’s the off-season and everyone is out of town, so he goes out to meet Davies. But instead of a quiet yachting expedition, he finds himself enmeshed (I am making this sound so much awesomer than it is) in a wicked plot with Germans and a British titled gentry person and a girl. None of this is spoilers. Childers says all of this in the little preface where he’s pretending like the whole story is true. I got so excited when I was reading the preface. I was practically shaking, that’s how excited I was to read this stupid book.

And then oh my God, it was twenty thousand pages of boat stuff, and the guys talking about boats, and boat stuff, and look, I would love to go to sea in a boat. I’m on board (ha, ha, ha) with a boat book. But it just went on and on, boating and boating and boating up and down the European coasts, and no German spies anywhere in sight, for so long. The forbidden love plotline was soooo underdone. Nobody murmured sweet nothings into each other’s ears. Nobody twirled his mustache. Nobody discovered the truth at a crucial moment and then got discovered by the bad guys before he could get back to the boat and report things to his cohorts. Nobody dissolved into a pile of ashes in a scene so shocking that the onlookers perished of fright. Surely at least one of those things should have happened.

Why I read the end: I almost didn’t. That’s how much I didn’t care. I read the end to find out when the awesome stuff was going to start happening. Spoiler alert: No awesome stuff ever happened.

Basically, I needed The Riddle of the Sands to be She with German spies, and it wasn’t. Bah.

Help me, y’all. If I wanted a good spy novel, a classic spy novel that would grab me and I wouldn’t be able to put it down until I read every word, where would I go for that?

48 thoughts on “Review: The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers

  1. How about The Book of Air and Shadows? by Michael Gruber. It’s the only one I can think of that isn’t of the Bourne Identity series or Tom Clancy stuff.
    This post was GREAT fun to read! but I’m sad for you that you were so disappointed.

  2. Oh, dear, this is one of the books on my TBR shelf! I bought at the library sale for a $1 so if I don’t like it at least I won’t have wasted a ton of money. And by “She” do you mean the book by H. Rider Haggard? I’ve heard of it but never read it.

  3. I’ve never read H. Rider Haggard, maybe I should. Sorry you didn’t enjoy “Riddle of the Sands”. I found it fascinating, sort of the beginning of “spy” genre. Have you read Kipling’s “Kim”? Or Le Carre’s “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold”?

    • oh, so sorry this was so disappointing for you. Imagine expecting a spy story and then getting a book about boats!! I had a similar experience with one Tom Clancy where he bored on and on about submarines. I have a real phobia for submarines ever since ๐Ÿ™‚

      I second Gavin’s reccos, you should try Kim, it’s real fast-paced. I haven’t read Le Carre, but I’ve heard great stuff about this one.

      • Tom Clancy has never sounded that appealing to me, to be honest. I haven’t heard nice things about his books. Submarines would not be my favorite anyway.

    • I need to read Kipling’s Kim. Among other things by Kipling. Kipling and me need to become friends (semi-friends) (friends apart from all that imperial crap).

  4. Oh no, all that boat talk would have made me crazy! It sounds like this book was more disappointing that you could possibly convey to us, but let me tell you, you did a great job with conveying a lot! I just love your reviews, Jenny, and even when you totally hate a book, I know that when you write about it, I am going to be entertained. I don’t know any good spy novels, and have actually never read anything in that genre, but if you do find something good through your inquiries, I will happily trot off to the bookstore to try it for myself!

    • If I ever find an awesome spy novel I will alert you straightaway. I haven’t really read any in the past because I’m always afraid they’ll teeter into noir territory, and the whole noir aesthetic doesn’t appeal to me.

  5. not read this seen film couple of times ,classic spy fiction ashenden W S Maugham inspired fleming ,orJohn Buchan wrote a few spy stories both these are great ,all the best stu

  6. LOL, your bad reviews are hilarious.

    I am actually kind of into the “boring spy” genre. Like, a lot of John Le Carre’s stuff strikes me that way – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for example, where George Smiley just walks around depressing old London talking to his former colleagues, who are now aging and depressed, and he eats bad food with infuriating people and goes home and feels depressed. I mean, I’m sure I would be depressed if I spent my whole life playing petty tricks on spies from other countries who were trying to play petty tricks on me, and then the whole thing just went belly-up and suddenly we’re FRIENDS with Russia, after all!

    Nevertheless, when one is in the mood for the Exciting Spies genre, Boring Spies just doesn’t cut it. Also, a book that’s trying to be an Exciting Spies book that ends up failing and being boring, is nowhere NEAR as good as a genuine Boring Spies book.

    • So if a girl were going to read a book from the Exciting Spies genre, what would you recommend? And I’ll save John Le Carre for when I fancy Boring Spies.

  7. I highly, highly recommend Alan Furst to you. All his books are faneffingtabulous, but try Night Soldiers, Dark Star, or The World at Night to start with, maybe. (They are all stand-alones, but a few of them make oblique references to each other.)

    I also personally love Charles McCarry’s spy novels (start with Tears of Autumn) but they are a little cooler and dryer. If I were you, I’d read Alan Furst, oh yes I would.

    My husband is reading “She” right now!

    • Other Jenny! I went to the library and tried, but Alan Furst must be wildly popular because only one of his books was in. The Foreign Correspondent? Is that a good one?

      Charles McCarry is on my list, but I will do as you suggest and wait until I am slightly more familiar with le genre.

      • Yes! All of them are good. I did read one that I couldn’t finish because it had serious (really *serious*) proofreading problems, like it forgot all the commas or something. But probably they fixed that in other editions and it would be fine now. So yes to the Furst to the yes.

  8. All that boat talk would make me want to fling that book far away from me. I don’t read many spy novel so can’t recommend much on that end but your review was funny. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I like boats, but I feel like when writers start talking and talking about them, it makes the book less awesome. Except, of course, if the writers are talking about PIRATES. Boarding each other and stuff. Then it is okay, indeed awesome.

  9. I really do think you should read Kim, though it’s more of a coming-of-age novel/ picaresque adventure with Buddhist elements, cleverly disguised as a spy story.

    I would say Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene, or possibly The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, although I really don’t like anything else by Le Carre.

    The thing I like about The Riddle of the Sands is what an absolute wimp the narrator is. He’s so upset at the prospect of sleeping in a bunk and having to do actual work that spying against the Germans doesn’t seem that bad. But I agree with you about how boring it is. I do like boats, and I’ve read all the Swallows and Amazons books over and over again, so that got me through all the boat stuff, but the pacing is definitely off.

    • Oh, right, Graham Greene — I forgot about Our Man in Havana. I’ll get on that, and Kim too of course.

      I do kind of like that about the narrator, but he annoyed me by being so sure about what was the best thing to do. I don’t think his methods would really have worked!

    • Oh, I love a world-weary ethically challenged spy. I’ve got one of his books from the library, and I will get more if they prove as pleasing as you and Other Jenny claim they are.

  10. Ha ha, I can quite see why ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ would disappoint: there’s so much scene-setting and boat stuff before the meaty spy story and genuine danger. I reviewed it on my blog last year.

    I quite like Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, actually – they are not like the films (except Casino Royale, perhaps), and most are not really spy novels, as such. I read a couple of spy novels by Len Deighton back when I was a teen, but they’re in the same tradition of Le Carre – too realistic to be really exciting.

    • Oh, yeah, I should read Ian Fleming. Or also Raymond Chandler? Have you read him? I watched The Big Sleep with Bogie and Bacall a few years ago, and I think picturing Lauren Bacall doing everything the heroine does would make even a very complicated and slightly boring book awesome.

  11. Great, funny review. I’m glad you are able to translate your disappointment into humor for the rest of us.

    “Nobody dissolved into a pile of ashes in a scene so shocking that the onlookers perished of fright.”

    See, now I want to know what book this kind of thing happens in!

    • Yup. An H. Rider Haggard book. Only I’ve just realized I spoiled the end of the book in question and now can’t tell you what it is or else you won’t be able to enjoy it. So you’ll just have to read Haggard’s entire oeuvre to find out. :p

      • I see how it is: that little line in your review was a subtle ploy to get readers like me to read all of H. Rider Haggard’s books! Sneaky!

  12. I totally had fun reading this. Way too awesome post for eh, blah book for you. Then again, you always have the knack for posting something that makes us, your readers, totally engrossed and entertained. Even if you basically gave the book the thumbs down. Except for boat lovers.

    And goodness, I just started reading Le Carre’s The Looking Glass War (published in 1965) because I feel that I missed something by not reading his earlier works (loved The Russia House and Little Drummer Girl, actually).

    I grew up reading Ludlum’s books so he was basically my go-to spy guy way back (The Bourne series comes to mind, and my hands down favorite The Matarese Circle). I also enjoyed reading Frederick Forsyth’s spy books as I initially compared both Ludlum and Forsyth’s versions of the assassin called the Jackal. Another spy story that comes to mind is Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle. Oh goodness, this is a long comment ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Are The Russia House and Little Drummer Girl more recent works of Le Carre’s?

      Ludlum could be a good idea, but I’ll have to take a moment and divorce The Bourne Identity books from the film associations. I’ve been given to understand the books have very little in common with the film. :p

  13. I am surprised no one is jumping all over recommending The 39 Steps to you yet! I tried to read The Riddle of the Sands after that and what a bore.

  14. I was totally going to tell you to read THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, but then someone else already did and you’re already reading it (or perhaps have read it?) so, yeah.

    I really need to read Buchan’s other related novels. I had such fun with that first one.

  15. Interesting review, Jenny ๐Ÿ™‚ I read ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ a few years back and liked it for the way it evoked life in a yacht. The spy-novel part of it is quite weak as you have said, compared to today’s spy novels. If you want to read a real spy novel I would recommend ‘When Eight Bells Toll’ by Alistair Maclean. It is one of my alltime favourite books and it has all the things that you seem to like – wonderful start, a very deep mystery, wicked bad guys, love, bad guys trapping the good guys before they can escape, a wonderful ending. Most of the story is set in beautiful Scotland with the mountains, the castles and the Lochs. Just tempting you ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. Got your drift, Jenny. Spy novels knocking off endlessly on boring stuffs irk me. I don’t even wait till the end; I give up right after a few pages. I have come to know that if it isn’t interesting now, it will in all likelihood never hook me. Sure, I enjoy the occasional Furst or Le Carre but if you are looking for the immersive adventure spy novel like Haggard’s She, you are going to have to go for the hard-hitters. This guy I discovered on the kindle store, Leon Ardkin; he’s new and his spy thriller Anon X: Soldier, Spy, Hitman, Hero, is the most thrilling thing I’ve read in awhile. He carries the plot along with relentless action without striking you as trying too hard. His is my kind of spy novel. I have half a mind to write a review on it. Anyway, I fed on Ludlum, Follett but thankfully not Clancy. I guess I prefer the heart and not the fluff.


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