PHOTOGRAPH OF ERSKINE CHILDERS
The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service
by Erskine Childers
Project Gutenberg Ebook Edition
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This is a book where I regretted the Gutenberg Free Ebook format because there are several maps that are crucial to understanding The Riddle of The Sands, the first "spy novel" ever written. When you consider the amount of market share the "mystery, thriller and suspense" category occupies, it's a wonder that a book like The Riddle of the Sands isn't taken more seriously, but I'd literally never heard of it before seeing it listed in 1001 Books to Read Before You Die (2006 ed.)
Although The Riddle of the Sands was written in 1903 it's definitely a Victorian, rather then Modern, work of literature. The Wikipedia article referencing the work of H. Rider Haggard as a main influence, and it's easy to see the family resemblance. Sands thematic contribution was to, "establis(h) a formula that included a mass of verifiable detail." Spy novelists later in the 20th century- people like Ian Fleming and John Le Carre- rode that formula to mass market glory later in the 20th century.
You can also see the impact of the "mass of verifiable detail" in more "serious" literature- particularly the work of Brett Easton Ellis, William Vollmann or David Foster Wallace- or for that matter the "serious" genre fiction of a William Gibson or Neal Stephenson.
However the real contribution of The Riddle of The Sands is the pacing- Childers early spy novel is only 300 pages in length, and he artfully deploys time to obtain narrative impact. It's funny, because as I write this I'm reading Flaubert's A Sentimental Education, and the main issue the critical introduction calls out is Flaubert's deft manipulation of time and it's relationship to the verifiable detail he deploys to obtain realistic impact.