A little bit of secret service on the high seas

I’ve been listening to an audiobook of The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. The title of this post comes from a line in it. I don’t recall seeing the term ‘secret service’ in earlier fiction, so it piqued my interest.

Published in 1903, it’s known as one the first spy novels. That, of course, makes it instantly appealing* to an intelligence and fiction (and intelligent fiction) geek like me.

However, one of the interesting things about it is that the writer constantly acknowledges both the existing tradecraft of espionage (it is, after all, an old profession), as well as it’s presence in schlock fiction of the day (I think he uses the term ‘penny dreadfuls’). Even at this time, for example, he writes in hilarious terms of a spy having a Kodak camera embedded in his tie pin. That’s pretty advanced, dare I say it, almost Bond-like stuff for the early 1900s. No wonder Childers was so influential on writers who came after him in this new genre.

Incidentally, I tangentially wrote about my reading of Stella Rimington’s books recently, and while reading about Childers’ book, I was surprised to discover she’d set it for the ABC Book Club when she was a guest. Small world**.

More tangentially, one of Stella’s books I read recently was based in Ireland and featured protagonists who escaped on a yacht. Listening to Childers’ book (spoiler: there’s a lot of yachts), and reading that he eventually ran guns himself into Ireland on a yacht (for which he was executed) makes me realize his influence is probably still being exerted on contemporary spy authors***. And I guess this post is more evidence in support of that assertion.

For these and other reasons, it strikes me as a fascinating**** and strange book, The Riddle of the Sands, even if you’re not a spy geek.

Although there are a lot of yachts. A lot. And a lot of time on yachts. And I do have limited tolerance for the vast descriptions of knots, currents and jibs. So, at this point, no guarantee that I’ll finish it*****.


* It wasn’t appealing. It was boring.
** It really feels like a small world when you’re trapped on those endless yachting adventures. Just saying.
*** Not in terms of narrative pace, though, I hope.
**** See *
***** Didn’t. Couldn’t. Shame that.