My natural literary realm is the Golden Age of mystery novels - Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh et al. A few months ago I decided to venture into new territory, crossing the border into early espionage fiction. So far, the going's been a bit rocky.
I started off with The 39 steps by John Buchan which was an awful lot of fun and terribly, terribly British. I then moved on to The riddle of the sands: a record of secret service by Erskine Childers (1903) and, frankly, I feel as though I've been reading this book for an eternity - and I still don't know what the riddle is. If it wasn't such an historical oddity I don't know that I would have bothered, still, it sounds good:
It tells the story of Carruthers, a minor official of the Foreign Office, bored to be stuck in London during the last days of September. All his friends are off on holiday while he is stuck behind a desk doing work that 'consisted chiefly…in smoking cigarettes, in saying that Mr So-and-So was away and would be back October 1st, in being absent for lunch from twelve till two'.
Everything changes when Carruthers receives a letter from Davies, a distant university acquaintance, inviting him on a yachting holiday in the Baltic. 'There was certainly no alternatives at hand. And to bury myself in the Baltic at this unearthly time of year had at least a smack of tragic thoroughness about it.' The yacht, of course, turns out to be a dismal affair, making a mockery of Carruthers' trim white yachting costume (with peaked hat!), and Davies is indeed an odd one. After pottering restlessly along the northern coast Davies reluctantly reveals that he suspects a fellow yachtsman of espionage and treason but his love for this yachtsman's daughter prevents him from following up his concerns.
The yachting element is a crucial one and draws on the author's extensive experience. Much is made of the tricky navigation of the shallow tidal waters of the German coast during thick fog. Indeed, you start to feel a bit miserably cramped and cold just reading it. The pair sail up and down Germany playing cat and mouse with the suspicious yachtsman, who seems to be hatching a plot to launch a sea-borne infantry attack from Germany's Friesian coast. Which makes it seem much more exciting than it actually is. As Childers himself said: 'I find it horribly difficult, as being in the nature of a detective story, there is no sensation, only what is meant to be convincing fact. I was weak enough to ‘spatchcock’ a girl into it and now find her a horrible nuisance.'
This was an extremely influential work, on many levels, influencing authors such as Grahame Greene and John Le Carre with its realist details. The book has become famous as one of the first spy thrillers (though some feel the guernsey should go to Kipling's Kim, published two years earlier). It was certainly one of the first invasion novels and as such caused a sensation at its time of publication. One of Childers' aims was to warn the English public of the threat Germany presented to an exposed area of the United Kingdom. It was written to urge the nation to build up its naval power in the face of an increasingly aggressive Germany. Churchill credited the book with the establishment of naval bases in the Orkneys and other areas of northern Scotland. The novel is also famous as a story of yachting. In 2003 many yachts congregated on the Friesian coast in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the work.
Somewhere along the line this very British of authors somehow became an Irish Nationalist. Credited with the writing of anti-British propaganda, Childers was hunted by the police and arrested on charges of illegally possessing a firearm (given to him by Michael Collins). He was executed by firing squad while appealing his sentence. His last words were addressed to the executioners: 'Take a step or two forward, lads. It will be easier that way.'
So yes, I bailed halfway through. But I feel the need to honour and respect it as a landmark work in the spy genre and as such I did enjoy it, particularly the author's personal story. Next stop in my pre-World War I spy fiction: William Le Queux.