The next book I’ve been (labouring) reading is Riddle of the Sands, recommended as a classic spy/thriller. I thought I would like it. I wanted to like it. But I just didn’t.
The context is two young Englishmen on holiday (circa 1900), sailing around the coast of Germany in a small yacht. After another sailor tries to get them wrecked, they become suspicious that the German navy is up to something in the sand flats around the East Frisian islands, and attempt to investigate.
Unfortunately, I’m a land-lubber to the core, and a lot of the book is spent describing their nautical explorations around the area. It has some interesting and/or amusing moments, but there’s also a lot of jargon that went over my head (jibing, heeling, kedging, …).
I persevered, partly encouraged by comments from the narrator that things were about to escalate (e.g. “The decisive incidents of our cruise were now fast approaching.”). But they never did. There was one (brief) interesting moment regarding a thief attempting to sneak on board (while they’re beached at low tide), but overall it felt like a cheap writer’s trick to keep the reader turning pages (“It’s about to get good, honest!”). The one bit that could have been dramatic and exciting—struggling to reach a safe harbour in a sudden storm—is introduced by the claim that “I think I cannot do better than give extracts from my diary”*, which proceed to relate the incident in (ironically) very dry terms.
It reinforces the idea that any scene in a story should have a purpose; either advancing the plot, or affecting the characters (whether individually, or the relationships between them). At the very least, the events happening should be of interest. Well, as I said, I’m no sailor, so the events weren’t engrossing**. Owing to the genre, the characters don’t majorly change, so there’s not much going on there. And the plot moves about as slowly as their small yacht through the shallow channels in the sandbanks.
It doesn’t help that the patriotic, racist, colonialist, British empire feeling frequently hangs so thickly you can almost hear the tinny gramophone playing “Land of Hope and Glory” in the background. The very first sentence made me cringe, and I reproduce it here in all it’s backward splendour:
I HAVE read of men who, when forced by their calling to live for long periods in utter solitude—save for a few black faces—have made it a rule to dress regularly for dinner in order to maintain their self-respect and prevent a relapse into barbarism.
Oy. I’m glad we’ve moved on. That said, this is all my opinion/reaction, and someone else may find it “un-put-down-able”.
I was relieved when, moving on to The Big Sleep (shortly to be followed by Farewell, My Lovely), that I was immediately loving the style and tone. It should be a lot more fun to read. Watch this space…
** Not boring, per se, just not enough to keep me invested.