Reading The Riddle

09 +00002012-10-24T10:26:35+00:0031 2012 § Leave a comment

I recently finished reading ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, by Erskine Childers. First published in 1902, it has rarely been out of print since, and has been called the first modern crime novel. (This depends on what ‘modern’ means – I could make a strong case for ‘The Woman in White’, ‘Adam Bede’ and even ‘Moll Flanders’.) ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ is extraordinary for its evocation of the Dutch lowlands, for capturing the taste, smell, companionship and compromise of life on a small boat and above all for its prescience – it imagines a German invasion of England twelve years before the Great War started. But all of this has been said before. What fascinates me is that there is only one woman in the story, and she has a tiny bit part. Nevertheless, it was because of her that the book captivated me. Is she innocent or guilty? Will she betray her father or her lover? Despite the (meagre) descriptions of her strong, brown masculine hands and very serviceable thick woollen clothes, she is convincingly enigmatic and sexually alluring: the modern woman captured in the act of being born, perhaps… and a lasting tribute to the lightness of touch of Childers’ genius.

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