Erskine Childers

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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.


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Boyle, Andrew. The Riddle of Erskine Childers. London: Hutchinson, 1977. An early examination of the enigmas at the heart of Childers’s life and the difficulty of understanding his motivations.

Cox, Tom. Damned Englishman: A Study of Erskine Childers. Hicksville, N.Y.: Exposition, 1975. Focuses on the relationship between Childers’s Englishness and his embrace of the Irish Republican Army.

Hitz, Frederick P. The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Hitz, the former inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency, compares fictional spies in the work of Childers and others to actual intelligence agents to demonstrate that truth is stranger than fiction.

Kestner, Joseph A. The Edwardian Detective, 1901-1915. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. Study of the brief but distinctive Edwardian period in detective fiction. Discusses the importance of Childers and the Edwardians in the genesis of modern spy fiction.

Piper, Leonard. Dangerous Waters: The Life and Death of Erskine Childers. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Biography of Childers, emphasizing the extent to which his life was as full of intrigue, violence, and conspiracy as any of his novels.

Ring, Jim. Erskine Childers. London: John Murray, 1997. Looks at Childers’s family papers and other sources to document the author’s attempts to follow his conscience in political and colonial matters, attempts that would ultimately lead to his execution.

Seed, David. “The Adventure of Spying: Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands.” In Spy Thrillers: From Buchan to Le Carré, edited by Clive Bloom. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. A study of Childers’s famous novel and its central role in the history of modern realist spy fiction.

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Critical Essays