Special to the Big Thrill by Hank Wagner.
The much-heralded ITW project THRILLERS: 100 MUST-READS is scheduled to be published by Oceanview this July, debuting at ThrillerFest. To whet your appetite for this essential book, we’re going to feature a series of short interviews with various essayists in upcoming issues. This interview is with the delightful Christine Kling, who contributed a piece on Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands.
Christine, you wrote about The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers. Was it your first choice to write about? If so, why? Does it fulfill your personal definition of a “must read”?
Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands was absolutely my first choice. In fact, at a ThrillerFest cocktail party, I wasn’t above begging David Morrell to give me a shot at it. My definition of a “must read” is a book that was a game changer, and in that regard, Childers’ book fits the bill perfectly. There are many who call it the first international spy novel, but to me, it was the first techno-thriller. You might wonder how I can say that about a sailing novel that was written in 1903, but technology doesn’t have to mean this idea we have of electronic gear. Technology is ‘how stuff works’ and we have come to love our thrillers today that give us so many details about worlds we might never visit outside the pages of a book. Childers didn’t flinch at using complex nautical terminology or geographical accuracy. Books like Hunt for Red October and The Andromeda Strain are direct descendants.
If you were re-reading the novel, how long ago did you first read it? About how old were you when you read it?
I first read the novel when I was twenty-one years old. I was on my first ocean passage from Hawaii to the Marquesas. The passage took seventeen days, so I had plenty of time to read.
What immediate impact did that first reading have on you?
I don’t think I was aware of the impact the book had on me. I had been reading many non-fiction sailing stories, and The Riddle of the Sands reads very much like a well-written memoir. I enjoyed it and kept it there tucked in a corner of my mind as one of my favorite books. Meanwhile, I went through the various stages of trying my hand at freelance travel writing, then literary fiction. It was when I discovered the books of Sam Llewellyn, the man who also wrote a sequel to Childers’ book, that I realized — Hey, if this is one of my all-time favorite books, why am I not trying to write this kind of book?
What influence did the book have on your career or your writing?
Once I realized that it made far more sense to write what I loved to read, rather than what I thought I was “supposed” to write, I decided to write a book about a female salvage expert and my character Seychelle Sullivan was born. When I was doing some research to write the essay about The Riddle of the Sands, I read that Childers had been criticized for the accuracy in his books — that some reviewers objected to the nautical language — and for a moment, the decades between our careers seemed to vanish. Boy, could I ever relate to that. There
are times when I read thrillers by Michael Palmer or James Rollins when I don’t fully understand the science behind the words, but when the author is adept, you don’t need to understand every word to follow the plot. It’s the accuracy of the language, though, that suspends your disbelief and transports you to another world. We all got that from Childers.
What was it like re-reading the book? Was it as good as you remembered?
I found that rereading this book was like making a new discovery because I had either forgotten or misremembered so much of it. Our memories are funny that way. I think it’s a part of what makes fiction – our tendency to cross wires in our memories. Also, either I didn’t get many of the jokes before because I was too young, or else I just forgot about them, but I really noticed the humor this time around. You’ve got the brilliant sailor Davies who’s a complete social catastrophe, and he is joined by the dapper Caruthers with his yachting whites and perky captain’s hat who soon discovers that life on a little 30-footer is more like a camping expedition under a cold shower. The interaction between them as they attempt to sail the boat, woo the girl and spy on the Germans is
Did the novel age well? The language? Were you able to step back and read it like a reader, rather than a professional writer?
Given that the novel was written in 1903, it was already rather aged when I read it the first time in the 1970’s. However, what had improved with age was me (she said humbly). Stop laughing. What I mean is that when I read it as a young woman, I ripped through it in a couple of days, loved the story, and continued to think of it as a damn good historical novel. But this time around, I brought thirty years experience as a writer to it, and rather than have that damage my appreciation of the book, it increased it. I knew the world history better, and I realized how prescient Childers was when he predicted that the Germans were building their navy in advance of an attempt to expand their empire. I saw the beauty of his language as he described the moods of the sea, and above all, I recognized the iconic quality of these characters. When you reread this book, you just know that John LeCarre and Graham Greene studied this guy.
Given that you had a word limit for your essay, is there anything you’d like to say about the book that you didn’t get to say in the essay?
Just this. Don’t let your twenty-first century impatience keep you from enjoying this book. By today’s standards, the story takes a while to get moving. It begins in London in August where Caruthers is bored our of his mind
in his foreign service office while all his lucky colleagues are out enjoying parties in the countryside. He then receives the invitation to go sailing and the adventures start. I don’t think we could get away with starting with boredom in chapter one today. Lucky for us, the book was published when it was — what’s that, one hundred and seven years ago — because it has never gone out of print since.
To see what Christine had to say about The Riddle of the Sands, be sure to pick up a copy of THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS when it debuts in July during ThrillerFest. One hundred of your colleagues writing about one hundred classic thrillers make this book “must” reading.
Hank Wagner is a prolific and respected critic and interviewer. His work regularly appears in such publications as Mystery Scene, Cemetery Dance, Nova Express, and The New York Review of Science Fiction.