In the depths of last winter the bathroom, if by no means warm, was the least glacial room in the house. Ever since the children were born it’s also been the only place in our North Norfolk home in which there is sufficient freedom from interruption to read. I was convalescing from Zadie Smith (On Beauty) and needed the literary equivalent of comfort food: of toad in the hole, cottage pie or dead man’s leg. The choice was Howard’s End, Brideshead Revisited or The Riddle of the Sands, all steadfast companions since I grew out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There was a rattle of rain on the bathroom window. It was an evening for Erskine Childers. I closed the door firmly on the children, drew the bath and settled down to read.
At once I was immersed in the pleasingly familiar plot. The riddle of the title is the motive behind an apparent attempt to wreck Arthur Davies, the hero of Childers’ Edwardian thriller, in the treacherous shoal waters of the German Frisian islands. The story culminates in the revelation that the perpetrator of the attempt, who goes under the name of Herr Dollmann, is a disgraced English naval officer trying to put Davies off the scent of a German plan to invade England. Davies and his companion, the narrator Carruthers, discover the plot and unmask the villain; Dollmann’s innocent daughter Clara falls into Davies’s welcoming arms; and Dollmann himself is conveniently lost at sea as the Englishmen flee the coast in their yacht Dulcibella.
As such it’s a cleverly wrought whydunit, worrying away at Dollmann’s motive up to the climax with the mainspring force of a detective novel. In its course, there are episodes worthy of Childers’ friend John Buchan. As a race against time, Childers’ account of his heroes beating the fog and tide to the island of Memmert vies with Richard Hannay’s passage of the Col of the Swallows in Mr Standfast; Carruthers’ wonde
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