Welcome to the first of our summer season of audio adventures in our popular series Tales for Our Time. This is the twenty-eighth of our radio serials, and it's a highly influential story that for many critics is the first modern spy novel. Certainly, if you've read any of its successors from John Buchan to John le Carré, it's not hard to see the debt they owe to The Riddle of the Sands, a book that, according to The Daily Telegraph, ranks as the second best spy novel of all time.
And yet its author was not really a novelist at all. This tale is, aside from some detective yarns he rattled off for The Cambridge Review in his varsity years, the only fiction Erskine Childers ever wrote. He didn't need to imagine thrillers because his own life became the stuff of one: As I recount in my introduction, he was born an Englishman, raised as a loyal unionist Irishman, became a militant republican Irishman, and shortly thereafter met at the hands of his adopted countrymen an end like no other writer in this series.
The Riddle of the Sands dates from that long slow road to August 1914 - the first decade-and-a-half of a new century when a restless ambitious power was on the rise, and there was a sense in the air that sooner or later Europe would come to war. Did Britain appreciate the threat from Imperial Germany? No, thought Childers. London looked out into the world, to its vast empire and the oceans guarded by its mighty navy, not over its shoulder to a fractious continent and its parochial squabbles. Childers believed the British coast was vulnerable to attack by the Kaiser's navy, and he thought the only way he could get the attention of the Admiralty was by making his argument in the guise of fiction. So he wrote an adventure with a high level of verisimilitude:
A word about the origin and authorship of this book.
In October last (1902), my friend Carruthers visited me in my chambers, and, under a provisional pledge of secrecy, told me frankly the whole of the adventure described in these pages. Till then I had only known as much as the rest of his friends, namely, that he had recently undergone experiences during a yachting cruise with a certain Mr Davies which had left a deep mark on his character and habits.
At the end of his narrative—which, from its bearing on studies and speculations of my own, as well as from its intrinsic interest and racy delivery, made a very deep impression on me—he added that the important facts discovered in the course of the cruise had, without a moment's delay, been communicated to the proper authorities, who, after some dignified incredulity, due in part, perhaps, to the pitiful inadequacy of their own secret service, had, he believed, made use of them, to avert a great national danger.
The "yachting cruise with a certain Mr Davies" is not at all what Carruthers was expecting. It begins in Flensburg on the Baltic and moves through the Frisian Islands as two holidaying yachtsmen stumble on the audacious plans for a sudden devastating attack that will change the course of history. To hear me read Part One of The Riddle of the Sands, prefaced by my own introduction to Erskine Childers' tale, Mark Steyn Club members should please click here and log-in.
We now have two years' worth of my audio adaptations of classic fiction starting with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's cracking tale of an early conflict between jihadists and westerners in The Tragedy of the Korosko. To access them all, please see our brand new easy-to-navigate Netflix-style Tales for Our Time home page. We've introduced a similar tile format for my Sunday Poems.
We launched The Mark Steyn Club just over two years ago, and I'm overwhelmed by all those members across the globe who signed up to be a part of it and then enthusiastically re-subscribed last May, and re-re-subscribed last month - from Fargo to Fiji, Vancouver to Vanuatu, Cook County to the Cook Islands, West Virginia to the West Midlands. As I said at the time, membership isn't for everyone, but it is a way of ensuring that all our content remains available for everyone.
However, we are offering our Club members a few extras, including our monthly audio adventures by Dickens, Conrad, Kafka, H G Wells, Baroness Orczy, Jack London, Scott Fitzgerald, John Buchan, Robert Louis Stevenson - plus a piece of non-classic fiction by yours truly. You can find them all here. We're very pleased by the response to our Tales - and we even do them live on our annual Mark Steyn Club Cruise with special guests. If you haven't yet signed up for our September Alaska cruise, well, you've left it a bit late because we've sold out. But we'll be doing another Tale for Our Time along with live editions of The Mark Steyn Show and much more on our third annual cruise.
I'm truly thrilled that one of the most popular of our Steyn Club extras these last two years has been our nightly radio serials. If you've enjoyed them and you're looking for a present for a fellow fan of classic fiction, I hope you'll consider our special Club Gift Membership. Aside from Tales for Our Time, The Mark Steyn Club does come with other benefits:
~Exclusive Steyn Store member pricing on over 40 books, mugs, T-shirts, and other products;
~The opportunity to engage in live Clubland Q&A sessions with yours truly;
~Transcript and audio versions of The Mark Steyn Show, SteynPosts, and our other video content;
~My video series of classic poetry (such as last weekend's excursion into the graves of Highgate Cemetery);
~Priority booking for the above-mentioned Third Annual Mark Steyn Club Cruise from Rome to Gibraltar, Barcelona, Monte Carlo and more;
~Advance booking for my live appearances around the world;
~Customized email alerts for new content in your areas of interest;
~and the opportunity to support our print, audio and video ventures as they wing their way around the planet.
To become a member of The Mark Steyn Club, please click here - and don't forget that special Gift Membership. As soon as you join, you'll get access not only to The Riddle of the Sands but to all the other yarns at our new Tales for Our Time home page.
One other benefit to membership is our Comment Club privileges. So, whether you like this twenty-eighth Tale for Our Time, or think it as shifty and wet as the sands themselves, then feel free to comment away below. And do join us tomorrow for Part Two of The Riddle of the Sands.