Erskine Childers’s fame as a mystery novelist rests on a single work of literary genius, The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service Recently Achieved (1903), which introduced a new literary genre to English literature: the espionage adventure thriller. The only novel Childers ever wrote, it achieved instant acclaim when first published in England and has found admiring readers through many editions published since. It was published first in the United States in 1915 and has continued to be reissued almost every decade since then. John Buchan, writing in 1926, called it “the best story of adventure published in the last quarter of a century.” It paved the way for Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps (1915), W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden: Or, The British Agent (1928), and many similar espionage adventure thrillers by English novelists such as Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, and John le Carré.
Childers invented the device of pretending that a manuscript narrating the adventure of two young men sailing a small boat in German coastal waters had come to his attention as an editor. He immediately saw the need to publish it to alert the general public to a situation that endangered the national security. He hoped that the story would cause public opinion to demand prompt changes in British national defense policy. Childers deliberately chose the adventure-story genre as a more effective means to influence public opinion than the more uninspired prose of conventional political policy treatises. This has remained an underlying purpose of many subsequent espionage adventure novelists.